Editor's note: Sun Staff reporter Tom Vaught visited the California, the large dredge that sat off the coast of Anna Maria sucking sand from the Gulf bottom and pushing it through pipes to beaches in Bradenton Beach and Anna Maria. He also visited the previous renourishment barge used for projects in 1993 and 2002.
It looked like a huge red Lego project in the water with black beams sticking into the air. There were buildings on deck and a huge pipe that went into the water on one end, snaking down the length of the dredge to another huge barge connected to its aft, which holds the booster motor that provides the horsepower to get tons of sand brought up by the dredge through as much as five miles of pipe to the shore at Coquina Beach.
That's a description of the California, one of Great Lakes Dredge and Dock's 18 dredges used worldwide in large-scale oceanic projects such as renourishment. For instance, the California was in Dubai last year and its time is so precious, Great Lakes did not bring it to the Island until the pipeline to Coquina Beach was assembled. As soon as the Anna Maria portion was finished on Saturday, the California was unhooked from the pipeline and tugs took it north and east to Port Manatee, where it will begin its next project.
This is not the first time Great Lakes has worked on our beaches. In 1993, the Illinois, a dredge somewhat smaller that the California, provided the beaches with their first dose of new sand. They were the low bidder again in 2002 when the county rebuilt the beaches again and the Illinois was the dredge they used in that instance.
While the Illinois used a diesel engine to shoot the sand to the beach, the California used an electric motor. A diesel generator ship, named the Key West, was anchored close to the California and a large cord ran between the two vessels.
Like the Illinois, the California is clean and everything on it serves a purpose. There are few creature comforts because while the dredge can work night and day, the crews come and go and hardly anyone sleeps on board, according to Great Lakes project director Chris Tomfret.
The Illinois had modern devices to tell the operator where the huge cutter that digs into the seafloor to collect the sand is in real time but with Global Positioning Systems in use today, things are even more accurate. In addition, Tomfret said, they now have sensors controlling bulldozer blades smoothing out the sand to make sure they build the correct profile to the beach. They also have sensors in the pipeline to make sure the velocity is high enough.
"If the velocity gets too slow, the pipeline starts to shudder and it clogs up," said Manatee County Natural Resources Director Charlie Hunsicker, who was also on the tour. "Then you're in trouble."
Tomfret said the system can handle as much as 47,000 cubic yards of sand in 24 hours.
The dredge has no propellers so the company uses tugboats to position it. During our tour, they were moving the dredge to a new position for the Anna Maria portion of the project. Tomfret said once the dredge is in the right position, they put down spuds, which are mechanical legs. The dredge rests on them, but the spuds can be moved for and aft to give the dredge some range as it vacuums up the sand from side to side.
The cutter that goes into the sand has large teeth to roil up the seafloor like an eggbeater and loosen the sand. The cutter is hollow in the middle like a hose and the electric motor creates a suction that draws the sand inside and on its way to the beach.
As the trip ended, we boarded a company shuttle back to the Island. This huge floating machine is the difference between the beautiful beaches our visitors and we enjoy year round and skinny beaches that encroach on nearby homes as they erode. It is an impressive machine that has helped make Great Lakes Dredge and Dock on of the most, if not the most successful dredging companies in the United States.