- Associated Press - Saturday, March 22, 2014

OFFSHORE FOLLY BEACH, S.C. (AP) - The crew bunks are in converted shipping containers right up against Big Red, the monster pump that’s pushing a sand slurry 3 miles to the shore. The drone is so steady that if it stops, one crew member said, he can’t sleep.

So life aboard the dredge Alaska is one of those mixed pleasures.

The 10-foot-by-40 foot containers each hold eight men at a time, four to a side with two shared shower bathrooms in the middle. Only the bathrooms have windows.

The bunk space is shared and impersonal, though the men have individual beds and storage bins. Each bunk has a satellite television plug-in. There is a small gym nearby, but after a 12-hour shift on deck, you don’t want much more than the bunk.

“Sleep. You watch a little TV. Believe it or not, time goes by quicker back there (in the bunks) than it does here,” Thomas Gillikan said, referring to his work station.

Gillikan, a dredge operator, sits at the command chair in the lever room, the “hot seat” where he watches a bank of computer screens and pulls an array of levers like stick shifts on either side, to keep the bottom cutter on track.

For minutes at a time it’s just watching, eyes always on the screens. Then it’s pop, pop, pop, switching levers.

On deck and on the surrounding boats, crew members scramble to hook and unhook anchors and lines. The Alaska can’t move without a tugboat. To dredge, the crew moves it from spot to spot by drawing in or letting out line among five anchors.

The Alaska is a 224-foot-long, live-aboard cutter suction dredge that resembles a Mississippi River boat, except for the huge cranes looming from bow and stern.

The crew is 25 men, and most of them will live aboard, taking turns on day and night shifts. The rotation is two weeks on, one working nights, and then one week off. Holidays are no exception. If the dredge has a job, they have work to do, and dredging goes on 24 hours a day.

The renourishments of Folly Beach have had their share of controversies. Some $80 million has been spent so far, with the cost rising each time. This project alone will cost more than $30 million. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Charleston district struggled for funding for this last go-round. In a couple decades, the federal settlement that pays for most of the work is set to end.

And the every-eight-years-or-so renourishments don’t quite keep up with the erosion.

For the workers aboard the Alaska, though, the work is almost a lifeline. The money is very good, particularly if you don’t have to pay to live ashore. Crew members wouldn’t say how much they’re paid, but at the Great Lakes Dredge and Dock office, there’s a waiting list to get one of those bunks.

Gillikan was recommended for the Alaska four years ago by his cousin Scott Gillikan, the dredge captain. Scott Gillikan tells you frankly, “We do a lot better than we could at home. That’s why we’re here.”

The Gillikans are natives of a small community near Harkers Island, N.C., one of those generations-old waterman haunts along the road to the Cedar Island ferry and the Outer Banks.

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