Beaufort News

How a group of divers is keeping Beaufort's 'floating' park afloat

Salt water has eroded Beaufort waterfront park's pilings. Here's how they'll be fixed

The city of Beaufort has hired contractors to fix 14 pilings at Henry C. Chambers Waterfront park with a high-performance epoxy grout.
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The city of Beaufort has hired contractors to fix 14 pilings at Henry C. Chambers Waterfront park with a high-performance epoxy grout.

The Beaufort River is rough on Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park.

The park has occasionally been plagued with sinkholes, high tides and hurricane damage.

It doesn't help that the park is basically floating on a series of over 400 pilings.

In 2005, the park was renovated at a cost to the city of Beaufort for more than $8 million.

Now the pilings beneath the park need some attention.

There is "nothing structurally wrong with them (pilings), but after many years, subjected to the harsh environment of salt water, they are seeing wear and tear," said Neal Pugliese, Beaufort's director of public projects and facilities.

"We want the park to be around "for generations to come," he said.

That comes at a price.

The city carved $332,500 out of its capital budget for this first phase and is competing for a $500,000 matching grant that Pugliese says will hopefully cover the remainder of the pilings over the next two years.

The work targets the 14 pilings in the worst shape and uses a high-performance epoxy grout.

Pugliese calls it "rational triage... take the pilings that need the most work as a first priority." The 14 extend out into the river and take the brunt of the river's tides.

He said a total of 57 pilings need attention.

Bill Barna of McSweeney Engineers, the project manager for the city — a job that basically makes him the underwater inspector — said the deterioration is the result of age and the environment.

"It's concrete and steel in salt water" he said.

Doug Wakefield, project superintendent with Charleston-based Cape Romain Contractors, says the grout is "a very expensive product but it's cheaper than tearing up the park to re-drive pilings." He said the originally square pilings "are basically round" after exposure to the elements.

"Most people (probably) don't know they are walking on the water — live oak trees are growing over water with about six feet of fill (dirt) on the platform," said Wakefield.

It's also dangerous work.

The divers who perform it are working in a confined space in murky water.

Barna says the floating sediment in the river makes his job more about touch than seeing.

"Imagine the worst snowstorm. It doesn't matter how strong your flashlight is, it's not going to help."

The divers also must work around the tides.

"The incoming tide is tremendous (strong)" Wakefield says. So strong that divers have to anchor themselves — he guesses the current moves about 3 mph — so they won't be carried away.

At peak tides, divers stay out of the water.

Much as you would prepare your house for repainting, divers have already scrapped the pilings clean so the epoxy grout will grab and hold.

The next step is installing standoffs — similar to leaving enough room for grout when laying tile at home. Divers attach spacers that jut out from the pilings. They then wrap custom-made fiberglass jackets around the pilings. This, along with the spacers, creates the space to handle the epoxy, which will harden to 6,000-pounds per-square inch. By comparison, a concrete sidewalk hardens to about 3 to 4,000-pounds psi, Wakefield said.

When Barna tells people that he does underwater inspections, they think he always has a great day at the office because he's always diving.

"They must conjure up blue whales and starfish, which is not the case. (There might be) 12 in 150 dives that are a good dive.

Even the "good dives" have a drawback.

"Nobody sees it but me and the guys working on it," he said.

This first phase is expected to be finished by the end of June.

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