Skip to content
New Jersey
Link copied to clipboard

The nomads who bring sand to the Jersey Shore

Four miles off the coast of Cape May, in the bowels of a floating factory painted blood red, engineers sit in a cramped room, concerned about the fate of tourists' feet.

The men peer into laptops, analyzing data coming in live from the beach. Every millimeter counts, they say, the difference between a decent and a great sand castle. Too much shell and a baby could cut a toe.

Kile Alford, a project engineer with Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., thinks they've struck gold  this Friday afternoon on the Atlantic.

"This is really nice sand," Alford, 27, says on the dredge Illinois.

Each year, from fall through spring, the Army Corps of Engineers replenishes beaches up and down the Jersey Shore, an expensive and complex mix of science and hard labor. The $127.6 million Cape May project began in 1991, and the shoreline there is spruced up about every two years.

Comfortable sand aside, the Jersey Shore is also home to industry, infrastructure, and millions of year-round and summer residents. Beach replenishment is more a necessity, proponents say, an investment against billions of dollars in potential water damage.

"If you want to stay put on the oceanfront and be a tourist destination, you have to have some buffer between you and the waves," said Stewart Farrell, director of the Richard Stockton University Coastal Research Center. "It's economics. There's no environmental reason for doing it."

Critics say the projects create a false sense of security and encourage development when storms and the threat of sea level change suggest waving the white flag toward the sea.  Local officials say that's not possible.

"I would challenge anyone to find a job in Cape May County that's not directly related to the beach," said Scott Wahl, business administrator for the Borough of Avalon. "The reason why we have people here and a vibrant economy is because there's sand on the beaches."

An Absecon Island project that includes Margate and Longport was delayed by homeowner lawsuits and Margate's argument that its wooden bulkhead offered sufficient protection. The stance prompted Gov. Christie to call Margate residents "the most selfish people in the state of New Jersey."

Finding sand for the beach sounds like a joke, but scientists say the ocean floor is mostly covered in mud. The essential ingredient in concrete, sand is becoming scarcer due to global construction. That's why so many engineers are poring over data and hauling up bore samples from the ocean floor.

The Illinois looks like a ship and the crew calls it "her," but it's technically a "cutter suction dredge," 309 feet long, owned and operated by Great Lakes Dredge, a contractor working for the Army Corps.

The Illinois is essentially an enormous pump. Off the bow, a rotating cutter attached to a structure called the ladder digs up sand, loosening it so the pump can suck it into the dredge's body and blast it out the stern in a long, floating tube.

"She's digging all the time," site manager Eric Mitchell says. "Right now, we're pumping about 200 dump trucks an hour."

That floating pipe connects to a steel one that runs miles toward the beach on the ocean floor, slowly being eaten away by the friction of the sand.  A "booster," resembling a small oil refinery between the Illinois and the shore, gives the sand an extra push. On the beach, wet sand sprays out from the pipe, building huge mounds that get spread around by bulldozers.

Kyle Gillikin sits in a captain's chair in a wheelhouse above the cutter, surrounded by a half-dozen computer screens along with some peanut butter, oranges, and a coffee maker. He's the "lever man" for the Illinois.

The dredge is towed from state to state by tugboats, but once in place over a prime patch of sand, it moves slowly, with the help of anchors branching out all around it. Every 30 seconds or so, Gillikin's hands run across hydraulic levers the way a pianist's do on the keys, except the notes sound like steam.

Gillikin doesn't say much. Visitors are rare out at sea and most likely a distraction.

"He's controlling all the winches, to move back and forth and position the dredge," Mitchell says. "He's also the one calling the shots on where to put the anchors."

Out over the water, the disturbed sand swirls up to the surface and mixes with the turbid water, like cream in a blue-green cup of coffee.

On deck, laborers remove peeling paint and slather on fresh coats to fend off rust. The dredge Texas, painted the same shade, is visible up the coast, off Stone Harbor. The Texas will eventually move up to Avalon, where the borough will undergo its biggest beach replenishment project ever.

The Illinois' exhaust is deafening on deck, and down in the pump room, everyone is required to wear earplugs. There are a lot  of ways to get hurt and warnings are posted everywhere.

Nor'easters and bad seas can shut an operation down briefly, but if the weather is right, the crew of the Illinois, generally about a dozen, works in 12-hour shifts. Mitchell and other crew members often go two weeks on and one week off. Many have homes in North Carolina or Virginia, sacrificing family time for good pay and a full week home at a time.

The crew gets ferried back to Utsch's Marina in Cape May in an enclosed boat, always paying attention to the weather report beforehand.

"Sometimes they'll get stuck out here if the weather's too bad,"   Mitchell says. "The winter time here can be nasty."

On land, the crews live in rented houses or hotels. Cape May's much nicer than the blank and endless Louisiana bayous they've sometimes been stuck on. Bahrain is just too hot.

Men like Mitchell, a Norfolk, Va.,  native, are nomads.

He took a job with Great Lakes right after graduating from the Florida Institute of Technology. He recently sold his house in Jacksonville.

When he's off for a week, he travels with his wife and their 10-month-old daughter, Waverly.

"We're real gypsies," he says. "I'm flying to Bermuda on Wednesday."

Mitchell's also expecting a son, to be named Reef, in April. He's pretty sure he'll be born in New Jersey, and by then, the Illinois could be chugging down the coast, towed by tugs, in search of sand.