By BRIAN BULLOCK
It's the biggest thing the Port of Brookings Harbor has ever seen and the service it provides boaters is even larger than its substantial girth.
The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers' Hopper Dredge Yaquina visited the South Coast for work in the channels of the Chetco and Rogue rivers. The work it does is crucial to the survival of both ports.
"The Yaquina maintains the front door to the Port of Brookings Harbor. If you can't keep the front door open, you go out of business," said Port Director Russ Crabtree.
The Yaquina, pronounced "ya-kwina," maintains harbors from Morro Bay, Calif., to Graves Harbor, Wash. It is currently working on both the Gold Beach and Brookings Harbor ports in its never-ending struggle against the forces of the sea.
At the mouth of the Chetco River, the Yaquina uses its massive dredges to deepen the channel to 19 feet. Up stream erosion constantly tries to choke the mouth of the river with rock and sand.
The Army Corps of Engineers works to keep the channel and harbor navigable.
"Before we even show up, the Corp has already done surveys of where they want us to work," explained Chris Park, a third mate aboard the Yaquina.
Park said the ship has the ability to do its own underwater surveys.
"If it's been a couple of months since the last study, we can go out and do our own," he said. "We can do our studies and we have a GPS (global positioning system) overlay that tells us where to dredge."
The ship's computer-controlled dredges suck up rock and sand into a midship hold. It then deposits the dredged material off shore. In the case of the Port of Brookings Harbor, that designated dump site is just off Sporthaven Beach.
As of Thursday, the Yaquina had deposited nine loads of material off shore. Capt. Miguel Jimenez said six more loads were expected before the job would be complete.
"We're putting in an underwater berm," Jimenez told visitors to the Yaquina Thursday. "We've tried these berm-building projects back in Aberdeen (Wash.). They've been pretty successful."
In Brookings Harbor, the Yaquina dredges mostly rock and sand washed down the Chetco River. Unlike many harbors, the local port has little problem with sand deposited from tidal influences.
Park said it takes approximately an hour to complete a load, which averages about 3,200 cubic yards of material. From midnight Wednesday to Thursday afternoon, the Yaquina was able to dredge up three loads and deposit them off shore.
The dredge is only able to work during proper tidal conditions. It needs both high tides and calm waters, which is one reason Brookings Harbor is a favored port.
It has a relatively calm channel. And it has a deep enough harbor to take on fuel and make crew changes.
"Once the tide hits 2 feet, we stop working," Jimenez said. "We need 10 feet of water underneath us to work."
Jimenez commands one of two shifts that operate the Yaquina. Capt. Ted Hunt is in charge of the other shift.
The two 18-man crews work an eight-day-on/six-day-off schedule, sometimes putting in as many as 10 hours per day.
Despite the military-sounding title of Army Corp of Engineers, the sailors are civil service mariners based in the Yaquina's home port of Portland.
Even though the dredge calls Portland home, it was built with Brookings Harbor in mind. The ship was built to a length of just 200 feet so it could navigate the Chetco River channel and harbor.
"It's the lifeblood of the port," Crabtree said. "If you can't maintain your channel all of your investments here will waste away."