By Suzette Cook
Superyacht crew, dinghy drivers, paddleboarders, water taxi operators, residents and tourists traversing and living along the 2-mile stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway in Ft. Lauderdale have been taking photographs, waving and keeping track of the 165-foot Liebherr dredger that crawls like a crab.
Since May 2 it has been at work between the 17th Street Causeway and Las Olas bridges, but the rhyme and reason of where the dredge backhoe Captain A.J. Fournier will hunker down next still has folks guessing.
One yacht captain at the Lauderdale Yacht Club, who was observing the operation, lowered his binoculars and said he tried to calculate where the rig would pop up next but couldn’t figure out a pattern.
Mark Crosley, executive director of the Florida Inland Navigation District (FIND), said that while they are a month into the project that will increase the depth of the waterway to 15 feet, the entire dredge will take about a year to complete. The initial stage is a chance for the staff and crew operating the excavator to get acquainted with the marine traffic and surrounding community.
“If you go to our website, aicw.org, there’s a two-page update and an e-mail address that captains and crew can sign up for to get locations of the dredge,” Crosley said about keeping yacht crew in the loop.
Stephen Tobin, vice president of Cashman Dredging and Marine Contracting Co. based in Quincy, Mass., said he set up the e-mail address IWWDredgePosition@jaycashman.com for anyone interested in staying in the know of the project. Although mariners refer to the Intracoastal Waterway as the ICW its official name is the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AIWW or simply the IWW).
“We did that in New York because we had a lot of stakeholders there,” Tobin said about the daily email update that includes a map highlighting where dredge equipment and the accompanying 220-foot hopper will be set up.
Tobin and his crew have completed two deepening projects in New York including the 42-mile Hudson River cleanup conducted by General Electric from Fort Edward to Troy.
“Part of our discussion here with FIND was how do we get the marine community involved,” Tobin said, “to at least get people to have that information if they wanted it.”
Tobin oversees all aspects of the deepening project and is based out of the Cashman office set up at The Sails Marina on the southeast side of the 17th Street Causeway bridge.
He has worked for Cashman Dredging for 10 years and served as an engineering consultant specializing in the environment and dredging. It was Tobin’s decision to start the project in the widest part of the ICW.
“We chose this location because it’s one of the wider areas so people can get used to us, see us out there and understand why we’re there,” Tobin said. “We really wanted the bridge traffic to see us, and people to get comfortable with us. It’s the best way to do it.
“We want people to understand the pieces that are out there and what they do, so that when traffic is coming, people understand that this is where it’s going to be.”
Both Crosley and Tobin say the history of the ICW and the date of the last dredge is hard to pinpoint. The original project was 10 feet deep and 125 feet wide, according to Crosley.
“As far as I can tell, the longer we go back, the harder it is for records,” he said. “Obviously before computers somebody wrote stuff down.”
Crosley said no significant dredging of the 2-mile stretch has been reported since the Army Corps of Engineers cleared the waterway in the 1970s.
“The Army Corps hasn’t dredged it, we haven’t dredged it,” Crosley said. “I don’t know, some private firm could have come by 50 years ago and done something.”
While the history of the waterway is under question, Tobin sits at a table in the Cashman trailer with a set of mapped-out plans laid out in front of him.
“This box represents where we’ve dug,” Tobin said as he pointed to sections on maps of the waterway. “These are existing elevations.”
In a pre-survey done by Oceanside Solutions, the hydrographic terrain is labeled by depths.
“Pre-dredge constitutes the background elevations,” Tobin said. “So before we start digging, we find out what’s actually there so we can figure out what we have to take.
“There’s 14.1, 13, 15 feet over there,” Tobin explained. “This particular area we have to bring to 16 feet.
“We approach each section, which is known as an acceptance area,” Tobin said. “We set up cut lanes. The dredge is an excavator and can only dig so wide, so we set up 40-foot-wide cut lanes. We work our way all the way up and all the way down, almost like mowing a lawn.”
Tobin stays organized by referring to a 28-page poster-size book that includes overviews and cross-section views of each the 14 acceptance zones that make up the project. And he uses an overall color-coded visual.
“My guys will print me a map for the wall,” he said. “If it’s blue, it means we’re good. If it’s green, it means we’re close. If it’s red, it means we’ve got to get to it.”
Once an acceptance zone is dredged, it is measured by engineers and cleared as it meets the required depth. For Tobin and his crew that means a minimum of 15 feet at mean low water (MLW).
“FIND is the client,” Tobin said, “And Taylor Engineering of Ft. Lauderdale is the engineering group that’s overseeing the dredge for FIND. When we’ve reached a minimum of 15 feet and the client says you’re good, we move on to the next zone.”
The dredging team
Tobin oversees the equipment and staff involved in the dredge and brought in a management team he has previously worked with on major projects.
“We have a captain who is management,” Tobin said. “Our crew is through a union group, Local No. 25 International Union of Operating Engineers.
“Onboard the project are an operator, engineer, a mate and a deckhand,” Tobin listed. “That’s four guys for the dredge, an extra deckhand and a boat operator running our crew pontoon boat. I have two guys in our survey vessel, which we call field engineers, that are management staff, a safety person on-site and a few superintendents at the unloading site.”
There is also a multi-beam 26-foot survey boat and operator. The vessel is used to collect soundings and data.
Three hopper barges measuring 220 feet long by 45 feet wide will be collecting the dredge material.
Tobin brought in three tugs boats run by P & L Towing and Transportation – Heidi, Rikki Ess and Joseph A. – and he secured Triple R Paving for dredge material handling at the Dredged Material Management Area (DMMA) at Port Everglades.
On weeknights, the dredge backhoe gets parked wherever it stops and is locked. It is set off to the side of the waterway, unless there is a seagrass bed they don’t want to disturb. They keep a tugboat with it at night. On Friday, the equipment is hauled out to the port to keep the channel open to weekend recreation users.
A normal day of work for the dredging team starts at 7 a.m. and lasts through 7 p.m. or the end of daylight.
Capt. Dean Chambers is also the superintendent for the project. He said he just finished working on a project in Bermuda clearing the way for the 2017 America’s Cup. He comes from a long line of dredge operators in his family and is proud to say that he’s been working on projects in South Florida since the 1970s.
“My very first dredge, the Western Condor,” he declared and showed off a photo of the first dredge device he used 40 years ago. “It did Ft. Lauderdale in 1980. They deepened and widened the entrance channel and the port base in there in 1980. It was a gas turbine that had four GE gas turbines in it. It burned 33 gallons of fuel a minute.”
Chambers said he and his team did a complete refit on the backhoe and dredge equipment before bringing it to Ft. Lauderdale.
“We tore that thing completely apart to do this job,” he said. “Pulled the boom, stick, bucket, hydraulic, spuds. And it went together.
“That dredge showed up from a job it was doing in Illinois and we completely reassembled it,” he said. “All my crew did it up in Ft. Pierce.”
According to Chambers, who has a 500-ton Master license, even though a license is not required to operate a non-propelled dredge, his job is about safety, maintenance and operations. He also serves as time keeper and purchasing agent. “The operator is responsible for digging,” he said. “We have an engineer but I oversee everything. I’ve been with these guys for years.”
Chambers runs a tight ship. “I like a clean vessel,” he said. “Soap and water, we’re painting and cleaning and sanding.”
Chambers encourages vessels to reach out to him and his crew at anytime as they monitor the marine radio. His advice for superyachts coming through the ICW:
“All they’ve got to do is call the A.J. on 13 or 16 and we’ll switch and answer on 67,” he said. “We don’t mind.”
A.J. crawls along
Capt. Chambers explained how the dredge backhoe changes position without propulsion.
“It walks on spuds made for deep water,” he said about the three 95-foot beams that pin the equipment to the bottom of the waterway.
“We have shallow dredging with tall spuds. We pick all three spuds up and the operator kicks back with the bucket, we put all three spuds down. The tug boat keeps us on range and the monitor shows the channel.”
“They’re lifted on hydraulics on winches,” Tobin said about the spuds. “The stern one we call a walking spud and it goes up. You pin it, push forward and it moves the dredge forward. Then you pick back up … it can move itself. It crawls like a crab.”
Chambers is constantly fine tuning the dredge action. “I’m watching how they do the barge changes and trying to make it better,” he said.
The 15-year-old dredge backhoe, that cost tens of millions of dollars, was named after a friend of Cashman Dredging founder Jay Cashman, according to Tobin.
“A.J. was an old tugboat captain in Boston,” he said. “He was a friend of the owner and an old salty dog.”
When all is said and done, Cashman Project Engineer Kyle Reeves estimates the volume to be removed at 180,000 cubic yards. According to Tobin, most of it is sand, shell hash, rock and limestone.
“It’s already been tested, dewatered into a settling pond, stockpiled,” Reeves said about the samplings collected in situ and tested in a lab prior to dredging. “Then it will be dried out and hauled to a commercial facility.”
“I’ll be happiest when the project is completed,” FIND’s Crosley said. “We hope everyone will be patient with us in the area. It’s bothersome, but once it’s done, it should be a lot nicer.”
Marine Industries Association of South Florida Executive Director Phil Purcell looks forward to any depth increase that is completed in the month before the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show scheduled to begin Nov. 3.
“They can bounce around,” Purcell said about the pattern of conducting the dredge. “But they have to be done in that area by 40 days before Nov. 3 when the boats start coming back and Show Management will begin building docks.”
According to Crosley, it’s the largest public works projects he has been part of to date. And because FIND is an independent taxing authority, the money for the project was collected and allocated over recent years.
“We’ve been squirreling away a little bit of money for several years to be able to pay for this thing,” Crosley said about the funding that was collected in “small amounts on all real property within our 12 counties.” He said a $100,000 house paid $3.30 as a tax for the project. He plans on it all being worth it.
“We think it’s going to give the marine industry the much-needed footing that it needs to be successful for many years to come,” he said.
“You know these boats are just getting bigger, and they spend a lot of money.”
Suzette Cook is editor of The Triton. Reach her as email@example.com.