Lives on the Sea

This is part of an occasional series looking at how the coast and the ocean are changing, and what it means for a region where people have made a life and a living for generations in tune with the sea.

OFFSHORE FOLLY BEACH - 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.

Lifeblood

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.

Thomas Gillikan, 39, began working dredges when he got out of school and has done it ever since. When you're from Harkers Island, boats are your lifeblood, your family trade and what you know to do.

"I love the water, the atmosphere. You're outside. You get to see a lot of places you wouldn't ever see," Gillikan says. "A lot of people from our town do this. Commercial fishing is about shot."

'The hardest part'

On a recent morning Thomas Gillikan wears a University of North Carolina sweatshirt and ball cap. The lever-room windows are tinted, but he still was sporting a pair of wrap-around shades. He handles the levers smoothly, working a hand to each side independent of the other, without even glancing; he watches the green and pink columns rise and fall on the monitor screen in front of him.

After awhile, he says, you get a feel for what the cutter is doing on the bottom, 40 feet below, the shudders in the levers telling the quality of material passing through, and a big shudder if an obstruction gets in the line.

If he can, Gillikan will get home for that week off, back to his wife, Charlotte, and 3-year-old Thomas Jr. In his free time, if he's not hanging with Thomas Jr., Gillikan is out at Cape Lookout fishing, back in the woods hunting deer, or in a duck blind.

But when he's home, Thomas Jr. wants to go everywhere with him, and usually does.

"That's the hardest part. I miss a lot of things people take for granted. You miss birthdays, Christmas, holidays. When he starts to play sports I'll miss games. He changes every time I see him," Gillikan said.

The fringe

Balancing out the grind is the challenge of handling industrial-scale equipment.

The engines on the dredge total more than 12,000 horsepower. Nowadays those horses and high tech gear do a lot of the grunt work, unlike in the old days, when a crewman would have to straddle the big pipe stem off the stern as the seas kicked up, working with a crowbar to attach or detach pipes.

But the jobs can still be physically demanding. The work is still hands-on and hazardous. The heavy gear gets cumbersome. Anchor lines operate auto-stop and auto-start, and a hand inadvertently in the wrong place at the wrong time could spell disaster. The swaying in the swells is irregular, and balance can get tested. Hands stay on the stair rails going up or down.

There is a daily fringe benefit, though, a good one. "Too good," Scott Gillikan says. The ship has two cooks.

Lunch on a recent day was pork chops, shrimp and potatoes, jasmine rice, white beans, California blend vegetables, corn, cornbread and salad. A bowl of apples at the galley table. Handmade desserts are customary.

"If they're stuck out here weeks at a time, their only pleasure is food," said cook Dennis Corcoran.

Meals, in fact, acquire a totem significance. Sunday is fried chicken, Wednesday steak, Friday seafood - feasts fixed enough in the crews' minds that the cooks have learned not to substitute, even to the point of changing the type of steak. If the men are watching a movie in the galley, chicken wings or pizza come out. The cooks go through $3,000 per week at a Folly Beach supermarket.

"It's not a rough, rough life," said chief engineer Chris Hensell.

These guys are all veterans, and most have worked with each other on the Alaska for more than a few years. They're used to the grind and they largely get along. The ship has that atmosphere of a veteran ball team locker room.

But a 12-hour shift "is a long box," Thomas Gillikan says. It does get tiresome. He keeps the radio on. He plays a version of a computer game: The amount of sand collected is displayed in hour segments along the bottom of one screen, and each hour he tries to beat the previous hour. Other than that he never plays computer games. After the 12 hours in the chair, he says, that's the last thing he'd want to do.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.