May 12, 2016

Hatteras Inlet users focus on problems with marking channel


Spring and summer fishing tournaments have only increased frustration for charter boat captains still struggling to get in and out of sand-clogged Hatteras Inlet.

And little comfort was offered at the most recent meeting of the Dare County Oregon Inlet and Waterways Commission, which has been unable to nail down a short-term solution to shoaling that is so hazardous the Coast Guard is unable to tend to its buoys.

“Anyone who doesn’t have local knowledge can’t use that inlet without following one of us,” commission Vice-Chairman Ernie Foster said during the meeting on Monday evening, May 9, in Manteo. “If they do, they’d be in trouble.”

The Coast Guard began broadcasting a notice to mariners months ago, warning that shoaling has encroached the marked channel. And now it is that very shoaling that prevents the Coast Guard from accessing five buoys in the inlet. Buoys 5 and 6 on the bar are especially problematic.

“When there is no marked channel on the bar that works, it’s probably time to fix something,” Foster said.

Jason Burke, Coast Guard officer in charge of the Aids to Navigation team, explained that the shoaling has made it too dangerous for the buoy tender to access the markers, and a survey is needed to be able to figure out how to address the issue, but it will take months to determine if a possible resolution is feasible.

“It’s a challenge when we don’t have anything to go on,” he said. “All we have is water color and break.”

Burke told commission members that Coast Guard Sector North Carolina has contacted the Marine Corps about the possibility of borrowing a Marine vessel that is equipped with hydrological survey equipment.  The Corps does not outsource such contracts, he added.

“This is very tentative,” Burke said. “We would be trying to get some kind of picture out there.”

The Smilax, the Coast Guard’s buoy tender that services Hatteras, he said, draws about 7 feet and doesn’t work well in rough conditions.

Some commission members suggested that the Army Corps of Engineers multi-use vessel, the Snell, would be capable of accessing the buoys. 

But the Corps’ Steve Shriver, survey section team leader, said later that the Snell – which had just completed 10 days of work at Buoy 14 in Hatteras Inlet, has already departed for the Gulf of Mexico and would be gone for six months.

During the meeting, Shriver showed the most recent survey of the former ferry channel route, from the Barney Slough turn to the inlet gorge.

“In a nutshell, basically there’s not much improvement,” he said.

In some spots toward the middle of the channel, Shriver said, there is as little as 1 to 2 feet of water. About 4 to 5 feet is required in order to dredge.

The Corps plans to survey every other week, Shriver added. Monitoring it on a regular basis will allow the dredge to come in if the channel starts to scour.

Meanwhile, Dare County has made an inquiry of an engineering firm to determine what would be required to contract with the Army Corps to have either its hopper or sidecaster dredge work in the area between the natural channel and the Inlet Gorge, County Manager Bobby Outten said in a telephone interview.

“The county is trying to get a handle on the permitting process,” he said.

At the same time, Outten said, state Sen. Bill Cook is helping to secure a memorandum of agreement between the state and the Corps that would be needed to get the work done.

At the Waterways Commission meeting in April, the commission agreed to ask the county to pursue whatever was necessary to get the Corps’ dredge to work for about 10 days to clear sand across the ocean bar and through the inlet gorge into Sloop Channel alongside Ocracoke.  Additional dredging would be needed again in the fall.

The commission members have also asked the county to find a way to restore the severely shoaled old ferry route, which is the fastest route to the ocean and the Ocracoke Ferry Terminal. 

The “Connecting Channel” – the name recently coined by the commission to describe the shortcut to the Inlet Gorge – has “pretty good flow” for the time being, said commission member Steve “Creature” Coulter, a charter boat captain. But he added that transiting into and out of the inlet is nearly impossible, tournament season is here, and livelihoods are already suffering.

“We’re trying to jump through every hoop and nothing happens,” said Coulter, a charter boat captain. “Everybody goes ‘The federal government doesn’t have enough money to do their job.’ Well, somebody’s got to get the damn job done.”

 “The doors keep slamming on the short-term stuff,” said member Danny Couch. “But we’ve got to keep pushing.”

Jim Tobin, the commission’s former vice-chairman, submitted his resignation, citing the difficulty of attending meetings every other month on Hatteras Island. 

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