On the good ship Currituck

Fri, 06/17/2016 - 11:45am

There is something good about hitting one of those “big” birthdays. When the glimmer of an opportunity to go out on the Currituck, the funky dredge with the familiar profile, that has been clearing our harbor channels for years, hit my peripheral vision, I leapt at it.

I was at the dock early on the appointed day, like a kid waiting at the top of the stairs on Christmas morning, and realized, as I watched the ferry come into the harbor that, of course, the Army Corps of Engineers official whose visit prompted this invitation, was coming on it. I was exceedingly early. 

That was fine, I too rarely go down to the Old Harbor where, in June, there are signs of the changed season. The Harbormaster's Office is open, the benches out, a few people about in the windy sunshine.

The Town Manager arrived. She was sure she had never met the familiar USACE official face-to-face; I was afraid I had, but so long ago I would not place him. Thankfully, there were few people coming as far as the Old Harbor Dock that morning.

Another great thing about these birthdays, it is much easier to declare “I need the gangplank!” when the workers are easily climbing a ladder attached to the wharf and stepping over to the deck of the “special purpose dredge,” as the Currituck is billed on a handout sheet. 

It was breezy but calm, a perfect day, the ride to the outer channel smooth. We watch from the wheelhouse with its walls of windows, looking out and down the long, empty hopper to the white-castle-on-red-field flag of the Corps snapping on the bow.

The Currituck, I learn, was built in 1974 as a self-propelled, split hull barge; it was converted three years later to a self-contained dredge, the first of its kind to operate in the United States. While its home port is in North Carolina — which explains its “Southern” name and the soft accents of some of its gracious crew — it removes shoaled sand from navigable waters from Maine to Florida. Weather permitting, the Currituck works every day but Thanksgiving and Christmas, with two crews who alternate long-houred weeks.

The Carrituck, loaded, draws only eight feet, allowing it to go close to shore, and it is often used for the dual purposes of dredging and beach nourishment, the former without a great claw swinging up and out of the water with each bite of the ocean floor, the latter without conduits and intrusive measures that can require more extensive permitting.

The harbor is busy on a Friday morning, with ferries aplenty, the traditional and high speeds from Point Judith, the high-speed from New London, and the transport vessel for the wind farm; even a local fishing boat, carrying empty lobster pots, passes.

The morning traffic supports the narrative on a government site: “The Block Island Harbor of Refuge, located on the island’s east side, is used by a small fishing fleet and is the subsistence harbor for the island.”

The monitors in the wheelhouse show the path of the dredge, the channel to be maintained, and depth findings.  One that seems an odd screen of empty water proves a camera showing what is happening off the stern.

The dredging is a process of routine. Long dragarms extend out to the ocean floor, machinery below decks turn them to vacuum pipes and sand-filled water is pumped up into the long hopper of the Currituck. It cascades from several inward pointing fountains, white foam shifting to tan or gray as more and more material is carried in with it. The bow fills, the pumps cease, the heavier sand settles and the water moves into coffers and is sent back overboard. The mechanism is cleaned, rocks knocked from it with a decidedly low-tech wooden mallet or crowbar.

The process is repeated over and over, until hills of sand begin to show when the excess water is pumped into the ocean, and, suddenly, the hopper is full and we head away from the channel, to deposit sand off the Town Beach.

That is when I decide a ladder on a vessel in the open water is not as daunting as one attached to a fixed pier and go topside, to join the Army Corps official on the open deck above the wheelhouse. The view is better, and I am surrounded by the unmistakable smell of the sea, of the ocean bed brought up to the sun.

There is a wide view of the island, green in early June, the pale sand brightened by the sun, a glimmering plane gliding toward the airport, the big white tent shining on the hill, awaiting festivities. The riprap legacy of Superstorm Sandy is visible, a reminder of less calm days.

The wonder of the Currituck is on full display from that vantage point when the hull opens and the sand cracks and breaks apart, the way it can when a beach castle crumbles before the tide. The dredge spoils drawn up from the ocean floor fall out and are returned to the sea, in a different location. 

I think of crazy “action” movies watching yards of sand, 315 cubic feet the listed capacity, crumble and fall from sight. The displacement, given in the baffling “long” tons, a British measurement carried over to matters maritime, the draft, the speed, are all “light” and “loaded,” riding, respectively, high and low in the water. It is very calm but it was not until later that I realized I felt absolutely no shifting as sand was collected and deposited; the wheelhouse is self-leveling, not impacted by even large fluctuations in weight.

We motor back to the dock, a morning's adventure already behind us.

The little Currituck, one of the busiest vessels in the Army Corps fleet, will be on its way to another destination, clearing another channel, feeding another beach, moving where the larger sea-going dredges built on the same, original design, cannot fit.