By Naomi Klouda
A research vessel and a former crabber were getting hauled out on the beach below Pier One Theatre at the Homer Spit last week, an endeavor attracting its own reality show audience in the cars that pull over to watch.
The Qualifier 105 research vessel and the F/V Susitna are each more than 100 feet in length and form quite a contrast. One is a sleek white craft that’s traveled the Alaska coast for gold mining divers in Nome and field biologists. The other is a hulk that’s retired from its Bering Sea crabbing days for a new life in freight.
When Earl Brock, owner of Salvage and Sales, orchestrates their haul-out, the vessels sit on dry land in the camping grounds to get repaired by marine tradesmen. Since Homer doesn’t yet have a heavy vessel haul-out facility, the process for pulling these behemoth boats out of the water is a large logistical undertaking.
“I had to figure the process out. I had no mentor and few resources when I started,” Brock said. “I watched them do it on an easy boat and thought, ‘I would never do it that way.’”
Brock has hauled boats out in Nome, Bethel and other coastal areas since 2006. He brought his operation to Homer when requests came in last year.
For the first time, six vessels were onshore near the Homer Harbor to get their work done. The advantage allows the big vessels to remain near their own home port, instead of expensive traveling to one of Alaska’s shipyards in Seward, Kodiak, Ketchikan or Dutch Harbor — or farther away to Puget Sound.
“All of the shipyards have their own circumstances,” Brock said. “You might wait six months in Ketchikan to get your boat in. In Seward, you might get your boat in, but won’t have all the marine trades you need to get things done.”
Brock’s system uses high-powered haul equipment, industrial air bags and natural tidal power to bring even the largest boats in the harbor to dry shore. There they undergo hull work, painting, repairs or prop work.
It’s a careful series of steps based on ancient concepts probably first strategized in Egypt, Brock said.
“I think of it as a logistical opera or opus,” said Peter Ford, one of Brock’s crew. “There are so many movements. Each has to be in place and doing its part, and it has to come together all at once.”
Take the air bags, which are inserted in the outgoing tide. To fill them with air takes a room-sized air compressor. The bags themselves range from 10,000- to 15,000-ton capacity and are made in China for launching boats all over the world. Brock is one of the few in Alaska currently using them to also haul out vessels. They’re described as thicker than an inner tube but not as thick as a tire.
“We set the bags (uninflated) in the tide and we literally ‘catch’ the vessel as the high tide comes in,” Brock said. “We inflate the bags in position underneath the vessel.”
The vessel rides onto the air bags. Now think tires, since the air bags act as skids on a beaching vessel. Under a tractor’s power, the vessel is towed to shore.
“I thought it would make a good joke to pull a vessel all the way to the Safeway parking lot. To show that we could literally walk a boat all the way to Safeway on these air bags,” Brock said.
Once ashore, he uses blocks to replace the deflating air bags. Brock’s job is now finished. Once the vessel is ready to go back into the water, he launches it using the same procedure, but in reverse.
To avoid air bag punctures, teams from Salvage and Sales sweep the beach by going on an “FOB walk.” That’s short for “fallen-off debris,” Ford explains.
“People ask me, ‘Who thought this up?’” Ford said. “I tell them the Egyptians. They were doing this thousands of years ago.”
For Alaska, though, Brock’s modifications come almost project to project. Getting a vessel ashore in Nome, for example, takes a slightly different process because it doesn’t have the 20-foot tidal variations of Kachemak Bay.
“There you might see a 2-foot tide difference,” he said. Also, the process accounts for differences in prop locations on the boat to protect it during the removal. “And we’re able to do much more complicated hulls and various-sized vessels.”
The biggest vessel in the harbor, F/V Horizon at 180 feet, is scheduled to come out in November.
How safe is this work on a stormy beach that sees 100-mph winds and wrathful rains? Brock said he requires certain steps, among them the removal of fuels and fluids as much as possible prior to setting a boat onshore. A filter fabric is spread beneath the boat to receive the paint chips and any fluids. A giant “vacuum” system sucks up debris at the end of a project.
“I don’t have any control over a project — my job is done as soon as I’ve hauled the boat ashore,” Brock said. “But I do have influence. To get back in the water, you have to work with me.”
Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins said that activities are limited under state regulations followed by the harbor. The work area is on city land.
“It is safe because we limit the types of activities they are allowed to do,” Hawkins said. “We have them put down the ground cover. Rainwater will go through it but any dirt or grindings off the boat won’t. We talk about control of the fluids — nothing gets discharged off the boat. And what to do if there is an accident, so the soils are removed by a contractor.”
Hawkins oversees each haul-out with his list of requirements. He’s informed of the scope of work ahead and questions boat owners about their fuel on board. He emphasizes this isn’t a boat storage option.
Since this is a new industry, essentially, tariffs in place to charge for the vessels aren’t quite adequate. Hawkins is in the process of writing new tariffs that will then be submitted for Homer City Council approval in January.
Still, a 17-cents per-square-foot tariff adds a new revenue stream to the harbor.
“I want to make it attractive. This is absolutely a new source of revenue for the harbor,” Hawkins said. “It serves our fleet, attracts new customers and it supports a growing industry in this community. I’m glad they can figure out how to do this.”
Brock feels the demand indicates a public need on this side of Cook Inlet, including farther north on the Kenai Peninsula.
His haul-outs are timed to the tides, with about 15 planned in the months ahead. The staging area around Pier One Theatre will at times look like a boatyard.
“Or a parking lot,” Brock said. “A parking lot with many-size vehicles.”