Cycle of shoaling creates danger, financial losses

By on December 2, 2012

Many commercial boats have left Wanchese for safer harbors. Those that remain cannot get in or out. (The Voice)

First of two parts

Unlike schools, commercial fishermen and fish houses cannot make up their lost days. And there have been plenty of them over the past two years.

For the second Thanksgiving season in a row, Oregon Inlet has been impassible for the larger boats that depend on late fall and winter fishing to stay in business.

Just how treacherous the channel has become was clear during a recent trip to the inlet with Mark Vrablic, general manager of Etheridge Seafood, and Capt. Tommy Danchise of the commercial trawl boat Landon Blake.

On the way out, Danchise described how over the past several years, the inlet has shoaled up during the late fall.

The federal government is charged with maintaining a channel depth of at 12 to 14 feet on the approach from the ocean to the Oregon Inlet bridge. It was an alternative plan provided after the government decided not to build a jetty on the north side and extend the groin on the south.

But a shrinking federal budget has put shallow-draft inlets like Oregon on the sidelines as efforts and money are directed toward high-tonnage players like the Wilmington harbor.

Sam Walker explains the recent shoaling and the movement of channel buoys at Oregon Inlet.

A large shoal encroaches into the channel under the bridge. From there the channel doglegs to the south and allows boats to safely traverse the bar at the surf line and head for the open waters of the Atlantic.

As we pass under the bridge, the depth finder shows 7.5 feet. And this is at flood tide, aided by a strong northeast wind that Danchise estimates is adding a foot of water to the channel.

Recent U.S. Army Corps of Engineers surveys show the channel averaging as little as 4 feet in some spots.

Danchise is well known to many commercial and pleasure-craft boaters. He has aided several dozen boats through the hazardous channel over the years — “rescue” missions that are becoming more common.

Even in the best of times, Oregon Inlet can be tough for experienced captains to navigate in the fall and winter.

Large swells form on the bar and roll into the narrow channel. Tidal currents are swift. Captains must keep one eye on the rollers, which can sneak up from behind on the return trip, a second eye on the channel markers and the depth finder.

If a boat runs hard aground, Vrablic says, it only takes one “Hawaii 5-0 wave” to overturn or break apart a stranded vessel.

On this late November day, not only had Hurricane Sandy and subsequent nor’easters filled the channel with sand, they had uprooted essential navigation buoys east of the bridge.

The large buoys were scattered like toys among the pilings of the Bonner bridge and even to the west of the span, far into Pamlico Sound.

Once we pass under the bridge there are no channel markers in sight. About a half-mile out we spot a green navigation aid barely visible as it and the Landon Blake bob in the deep swells.

The buoy is a mile and half east of the bridge and nowhere near the channel it is supposed to mark. The next closest buoy is a red marker, floating almost 2 miles east of the bridge.

Early last week, the corps was working on digging out the channel enough to allow the Coast Guard’s 55-foot buoy tender to get out and re-mark the channel. But the busy crew of the Merritt needed a break, and the side-cast dredge was docked in Wanchese by mid-week.

Fixes are temporary in the dynamic channel anyway. Danchise and Vrablic fear a fatal accident is waiting to happen. A shallow channel and an absence of navigation aids has meant only the most experienced captains can navigate it safely, and then, only in daylight.

Boaters lacking experience with the inlet and commercial fishing boats who leave before sunrise and return after sunset have been navigating the inlet blind.

Vrablic notes that Oregon Inlet is the only “safe harbor” for troubled boats north of Hatteras Inlet and south of Rudee Inlet or Chesapeake Bay in Virginia.

As if to emphasize the point, Vrablic called a few days later and sent a picture of a luxury yacht that had made it over “the bar” in broad daylight and was unable to get through the navigation spans under the bridge due to shallow water and the lack of channel markers.

A gill-net boat came out and guided the yacht to safety.

Vrablic wonders what this boat owner will tell his friends about Oregon Inlet, emphasizing the inlet is no longer an issue for just commercial fishing vessels that draw 8 or more feet of water.

“It’s now affecting the charter fleet, yachts, and other industries. Sailboats should be stopping in Manteo, but the inlet is so unreliable, few make the trip. The charter boats should be out now chasing tuna. Rockfish season is coming,” Vrablic said.

“And how does that affect our boat building industry? How do you sell a boat you can’t deliver or take out to sea for trials? There used to be over 20 boat builders here and if they don’t fix this inlet, there won’t be any.”

It isn’t just Wanchese that relies on the inlet. Stumpy Point and Englehard commercial fishermen and fish houses also need it open.

Next: The financial impact of the inlet’s problems on the traditional commercial fishing industry.

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