A wide void in the ocean

They're called ''weather sentinels of the sea,'' and every hour 24 hours a day, they transmit data about wave height, wind speed and ocean temperature to the nation's weather forecasters.

Experts say moored buoys are essential forecasting tools -- the only tool, in fact, that regularly collects information about surface conditions over water.

Yet the National Weather Service for years didn't put a single buoy anywhere in the Caribbean or in the eastern Atlantic -- frequent breeding grounds for hurricanes.

For the buoys already in place, meanwhile, repairs have often been delayed. Before Hurricane Gaston struck South Carolina last August with stronger winds than predicted, three of the seven buoys in the region were malfunctioning, according to records.

''Not only is it a sparse network to begin with, but when they go down . . . it takes an inordinate amount of time to get them repaired,'' said Carl Morgan, a Weather Service meteorologist in Wilmington, N.C.

Part of the problem is tight budgets, prompting the Weather Service to delay some repairs. Maintenance crews also need specially equipped ships to get to the buoys. The Weather Service could pay to charter a ship, but typically waits for free rides from the Coast Guard.

After last summer's hurricanes, Congress gave the Weather Service money to install seven new buoys. But forecasters say that's still not enough; the Hurricane Center wants 13 more, though officials have made no formal request.

There's still no buoy off South Florida, contributing to a poor forecast during Hurricane Bertha.

According to a Weather Service report after the 1996 storm, ``Due to the lack of wave/swell data from off the southeast coast, the heavy surf advisory was prematurely canceled. Two . . . people were drowned and more than 100 were rescued along Dade County beaches. . . . ''

The cost of a buoy: $250,000.