Smallest dredge has a big job

“Wow, cool,” were the words that escaped William Rock, chairman of Stratford’s Waterfront and Harbor Management Commission, as he pulled forward the levers on the Currituck’s control board that began to flood the open forward hold with water. Slowly the boat kept chugging forward toward the dock at Stratford’s Brewer’s Marina.

Rock’s actions, guided by Capt. Jeon Petersen, would bring the boat’s prow down enough for the handful of passengers touring the vessel to disembark. When not weighted down, the Currituck rides high.

“It’s one of our advantages,” explained Petersen, who has been behind the controls for three years now. “If we get stuck we can open up and drop our payload and the boat rises several feet.”

The ability to navigate shallow water is a necessity for the Currituck, the small dredge hopper clearing the mouth of the Housatonic River for the first time since 1976. Operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, the boat has roughly 25 more days to finish its goal of relocating 50,000 cubic yards of silt and sand from some of the river channel’s shallowest points, some at four feet or less.

The Currituck itself is, or has been until recently, a unique vessel. Built in 1973, it was originally a small hopper barge that would be loaded by a dredger and then take the material to another location. Several decades and many modifications later, it is a self-propelled vessel with its own dredging arms capable of working independently.

The arms scour the river and seabed, vacuuming sand and water into the open hold that constitutes most of the front of the vessel. Petersen said the estimated 280 cubic yards of sand they were hauling out to just off Long Beach West was an average load, though they could manage more if necessary. But heavier hauls begin to reduce efficiency, and they’ve found that keeping them under the maximum lets the crew get an extra run in for more net gain than by adding an extra dozen or so cubic yards of sand to each trip.

When the Currituck reaches its dumping position just off the shore of Long Beach West, the boat slows to a stop. The barge doesn’t use a rudder system. Underneath the hull, the engines churn water via a rotating pod. It allows Petersen precision control, even moving the barge sideways at times.

During Rock’s visit aboard the Currituck, once settled, Petersen let him have the honor of dumping the load. From atop the house section of the boat, passengers could see the hull itself slowly start to split apart. The house stayed level, but a massive hydraulic system pressed the bottom of the hull open, the topside elements slowly tilting inward toward each other.

Cracks formed across the top of the collected sand as beneath what was visible, tons of material dropped into the designated area. Eventually the last of it fell out and the hull began to pinch back together, ready for the next load.

The Currituck runs 24 hours a day in two shifts of six men each, according to Petersen. At night, spotlights illuminate the area around the boat.

Petersen noted that the Currituck has the distinction of being the smallest vessel of its kind in operation. The size allows such vessels to be maneuverable in any number of waterways. Though it is in Stratford for the next month, the boat operates all along the East Coast.

The dredging project has been in development for 13 years, with the primary issue being cost, according to Rock. In the original plans, the dredging would have removed enough sand to create 18 feet of depth throughout the channel. But that was back when barges would carry fuel to the power plant in Devon.

Times have changed, as have the needs of the plant. The fuel barges no longer travel up the river, and no major shipping vessels use the harbor. With those factors in mind it was determined that a 14-foot depth would be sufficient.

That decision had a dramatic impact on the estimated cost of dredging. Instead of $13.5 million as originally estimated, the project now should run closer to $750,000.

Rock said most of the boats in the area marinas could get by in five to six feet of water if necessary. A greater depth will let more boats access the river and allow for slightly larger fishing and commercial ventures.

The sand being taken out of the river and deposited near Long Beach West is being placed strategically. It is cost-prohibitive to create a system to drop the sand directly on the beach, which Rock would love to do if possible. Instead, it is being used to create an erosion barrier that could see some of the sand eventually carried to the beach through natural means.

Rock noted the sand itself is clean. It’s come from all throughout the Housatonic’s 129-mile run and settled at the mouth. Coming out of the tubes filling the hull, it looks black and fouled. But Rock pointed out that that is just how sand looks when entirely soaked. As it dries, it quickly starts to lighten toward a more expected color.

There is little to no debris of any kind in it. The dredging apparatus filters out most large items, though Petersen said they’ve gotten various items, including a number of T-shirts, over the years. There isn’t even much in the way of shells, as clams don’t appear to be prevalent in that section of the river.

When all is said and done, Rock hopes that at least every 10 years the river can continue to be dredged as a point of maintenance. He fears if it isn’t, buildup will lead to another large expenditure out of necessity.

While dredging one of the three primary locations, Rock looked at the nearby marshes and noted that once upon a time that was open river.

“When they settled this region, the river was over there. But over time it filled in with sand and became marshes,” he said, noting that if the town doesn’t keep up with dredging, the marshes could one day extend even further into the existing channel.

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