Delray Beach: Unusual ship is surveying sand on ocean floor for future projects

The Rachel K Goodwin, a specially outfitted 121-foot research vessel, is working in advance of planned beach renourishment in Delray this year and in 2020. Photo by Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star

By Stephen Moore

Jim Gammon and his wife, Margo Stahl-Gammon, are not ordinary South Florida beach lovers. They treasure the view from their beachside condo in Gulf Stream.
And when something upsets this scene, they want to know why.
On March 16, a strange-looking vessel appeared on the horizon. The Rachel K Goodwin is a 121-foot ship registered in the United States. It has a large, U-shaped extension on the stern with an iron beam across the top. This device seems to hold a litter of pulleys and ropes. It has been zigzagging less than a mile offshore up and down the coast, from just north of Briny Breezes to Highland Beach.
“We thought it was a fishing boat at first,” said Stahl-Gammon. “And we thought they were pulling seine nets. But then we found out it was surveying the sand in the area.”
Delray Beach has contracted with Aptim Environmental & Infrastructure, LLC to survey the ocean floor for two beach renourishment projects, set to begin in November 2019 and October 2020. The chartered boat serves as a marine platform to assist in data collection tasks.
The survey effort, which includes the contracting of the boat, costs approximately $670,000, according to Cynthia Fuentes, the manager for both renourishment projects.
“It arrived the second week in March. The boat is surveying the floor of the ocean by dragging it. The extension on the boat has a bunch of pulleys that are used to drag the floor of the ocean,” said Fuentes, the engineering division chief in the city’s Public Works Department.
“It tells us about not only sand, but reefs and other ecological aspects of the ocean floor. We will also drill into the floor to see how deep the sand is.”
Jim Gammon said that during the first days, “we tracked its path on our computer and it was 500-800 yards off shore.”
Fuentes said the work is doing no ecological damage.
“I can understand the concern for the environment,” she said. “Our office has received many calls about the boat and what it is doing. Right now all we are doing is dragging the bottom to see where the sand is. After the calls, we posted on our Delray Beach Facebook page information about the boat and what it is doing.”

The graphic traces the ship’s zigzags.

The Facebook post reads, “Ahoy, Delray Beach! Over the next few weeks, you might see this boat in the ocean waters off our city. It’s actually a hydrographic survey vessel that will be going back and forth gathering information the city needs about the ocean floor as we prepare for a possible beach renourishment project.”
Stahl-Gammon worked for the Army Corps of Engineers in Hawaii from 1988-1993 and was manager at the Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge from 2000-2011. She is familiar with renourishment projects.
“We are concerned about the effects this renourishment project could have on our environment,” she said.
“How would it affect turtle nesting, the reefs and plants on the dunes? We have a natural ebb and flow of sand that has been working in this area for a long time. The Anastasia Rock Formation is also a concern since it attracts lots of fish.”
Anastasia runs from South Palm Beach to Jacksonville. The Blowing Rocks Preserve in Jupiter-Tequesta is part of it.
Brian Choate, the Corps of Engineers project manager for Palm Beach County, said the project is safe.
“There is usually no ecological damage done to these environments,” Choate said. ”All these projects are licensed and permitted through all the pertinent agencies. And if anything does go wrong, we work to mitigate the damage.”
Fuentes said the survey should finish by April 30 “if the weather cooperates. We lost a few days due to high winds.”

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