Captain Frank Camarda has piloted his 80-foot party boat, Miss Beach Haven, to the tip of Holgate on the southern end of Long Beach Island.
Camarda knows his boat drafts 4.5 feet of water. He also knows Little Egg Inlet is about 6.5 feet at low tide. That means just a bit of a swell can put his keel on the bottom — not good for the boat, and it certainly won’t endear him to the paying customers. It could lead to a dangerous rollover.
So he searches for deeper water. The search is made more difficult by shifting sands from Hurricane Sandy.
“It’s really scary. No matter where you go, there is no deep water. I’m 54 and I’ve been going out that inlet since I was 9, but I don’t know which way to go,” Camarda said.
He recounted one recent trip out of the inlet.
“I take a wave off my bow, go a little to the right, put the boat into neutral. The customers are seeing ‘Hawaii Five-O’ waves coming, and that’s not fun,” Camarda said.
Little Egg is one of many inlets along the New Jersey coast. Others are no better — and sometimes worse.
Sandy shifted sand in many inlets, washing barrier-island sand into the Intracoastal Waterway, the back-bay highway for boaters, making it dangerous in spots. It also filled marina boat slips with beach sand, put debris in the water and destroyed navigational aids.
Dangers created by Sandy were not that much of a problem in the winter, because few boats were on the water and those piloting them are generally seasoned captains. That will change in a few short weeks when the summer boaters arrive and begin water skiing, fishing for flounder and just plain joyriding on the water. Many may think they know the waterways from last year and may not realize those waterways are now different.
Sandy shifted sand in the Great Egg Harbor Inlet, and some have blamed that for the recent death of Sea Tow Captain David C. McAuliffe. His boat, the Cape Hatteras, sank in the mouth of the inlet, and his body was found May 1 on an Ocean City beach.
Shifting sands are only part of the problem. The hurricane also left a lot of debris in the water.
“There is household debris, vegetation, cars and boats. We’ve even found several historic vessels,” said Kerry Kirk Pflugh, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The good news is that an effort is under way to address the problem. The state Department of Transportation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been conducting sonar surveys to locate debris and find out where dredging is needed. The Army Corps and the DEP’s Bureau of Coastal Engineering are relocating buoys and channel markers to make waterways as safe as possible.
Pflugh said the survey work is 90 percent complete and should be done by Memorial Day. Contractors are notified as soon as debris is found, although Pflugh said it won’t all be removed until the fall.
The Army Corps has already signed a $2 million dredging contract and is preparing another. Army Corps spokesman Richard Pearsall said Sandy freed up money to dredge the Intracoastal Waterway, which is a federal responsibility.
Little Egg Inlet, or even the North Branch of the waterway commonly called Beach Haven Inlet that runs right along Holgate, is not slated for any work. Camarda may have to wait longer to find some deep water.
“If I can’t get out, is the government going to buy my boat?” Camarda asked.
There is no answer to that question, but Pflugh said progress is being made.
The state Bureau of Coastal Engineering is still re-marking waterways in state channels, but the Coast Guard is mostly done with its post-Sandy work in areas that the federal government maintains.
“Sandy did do quite a bit of damage, especially to the New Jersey coast, all the inlets and the ICW,” said Boatswain Christopher Rudd, the Coast Guard’s Aids to Navigation officer for the Delaware Bay, Delaware River and New Jersey coast.
Rudd said 49 “discrepancies” were reported after Sandy. A discrepancy is a problem with a navigational aid. Almost all have been fixed. He said they are still working on marking hazards in the water.
He also warned that having marked channels doesn’t mean there is as much water for boaters as there was prior to Sandy because dredging needs to be done. He said buoys were moved to mark “the best water” and dangers, including shoaling, are being marked. Rudd said if boaters notice any problems, they should call 1-877-WARNDEP or the nearest Coast Guard station to report them.
Boaters also should be careful in other back-bay areas since the Sandy storm surge pushed sand into them.
“Grassy Sound (behind Five-Mile Beach) is all filled in. You can’t get a bigger boat in there and might be better going through at low tide because then you can see where you might have some water,” said Jim McClintock, the Wildwood director for the Cape May County Party and Charter Boat Association.
McClintock said there is more shoaling in the Townsends, Hereford and Great Egg Harbor inlets and the Intracoastal Waterway is generally shallower.
The main inlet channel near Stone Harbor that used to be 15 to 20 feet deep is now covered with sand. Mars Anagnou, owner of Dad’s Place Marina, said the inlet is still passable, but he dubbed it a “local knowledge inlet,” meaning those not used to navigating it should stay away.
“The insurance companies consider it a non-navigable inlet. If you go aground, it’s on you,” Anagnou said.
The storm also affected the environment. Anagnou said mussel beds on what was a muddy bottom are now smothered with sand, and that could hurt fishing for weakfish.
Pflugh said the state is also collecting information from marinas hit by Sandy. She said boat slips made inaccessible by sand could qualify for money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to remove it.
“If eligible, we will remove it under a state contract,” she said.
The Army Corps is planning some dredging at Cape May, Absecon, Barnegat and Manasquan inlets and will repair the Point Pleasant Canal. Dredges working outside Great Egg Harbor and Hereford inlets are doing beach replenishment and not improving channels.
Mike O’Neill, captain of the Stray Cat charter boat in Longport, said dredging from a sandbar north of Great Egg Harbor Inlet is actually counterproductive.
“That north bar protects the channel. That makes the rest of the inlet worse,” O’Neill said.
Contact Richard Degener: