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Dredging clears the way for larger boats in the Hernando Beach Channel

HERNANDO BEACH

One fall evening in 2007, Dan McCann motored his just-purchased sailboat, Red Bug, into the Hernando Beach Channel for the first time. McCann bought the 34-boat in St. Petersburg and was on his way to his slip off the main canal. He checked the tide tables near the channel's first marker and his heart sank. The water wasn't deep enough to accommodate his boat's 4-foot draft.

"I was wondering if we had enough beer and sandwiches to last one more night," McCann, now commodore of the Hernando Beach Yacht Club, recalled last week.

After trying anyway and bumping the bottom, McCann decided to drop anchor and spend the night in the gulf, waiting for the tide to come in.

For McCann, a former merchant marine captain who moved from Texas to Royal Highlands the year before, the experience put into stark relief the irony of Hernando Beach: The gateway leading into a community designed to be a boater's paradise was for many boats useless during lower tides.

McCann recently returned from an overnight trip on Red Bug with a couple of friends, arriving during low tide.

"We were ranting and raving about how much water we had," he said.

After years of delays and ballooning costs, pleasure boaters like McCann and workboat captains who make a living on the water are enjoying the benefits of a channel dredge project that many thought wouldn't happen.

It took 17 years and roughly $15 million — about $6 million more than projected — to lengthen and widen the 3-mile channel and clear enough rocks and sand to make it a consistent 6 feet deep at the mean low tide. Those who use the channel or benefit from it say they understand the cynicism of inland residents who never set foot on a boat and worry about closed county parks and reduced services.

But Hernando Beach residents, boaters and businesses point out that they pay taxes, too, and that the channel will open the throttle on an economic engine that will pay dividends for years. Land-based business owners say they expect their economic tides to rise as word gets out that the area finally has a channel deep enough for large boats.

"No one's pleased with how much it ultimately cost," said County Commissioner Dave Russell. "But the fact is we were going to lose that channel if something wasn't done. The economic impacts as well as the quality of life impacts would have been very significant."

• • •

Commercial fisherman at Hernando Beach struggled for years navigating their large fishing boats in and out of the channel. Many have horror stories about the hard limerock bottom breaking propellers, bending drive shafts and damaging hulls.

Low tide often brought close calls as boats entering and leaving the narrow channel jockeyed to avoid one another, said Mike Birren, a stone crabber and grouper fisherman who runs a 34-foot vessel named Brandi Lee.

"It could get pretty hectic sometimes, because you weren't sure if the other guy could see you coming," Birren said. "You crossed your fingers a lot."

Birren's sister-in-law, Kathy Birren, operates Hernando Beach Seafood, a processing facility that has 21 rental slips for commercial vessels. She hopes the widened and deepened channel will help attract larger fishing boats that had been unable to dock at the facility.

"Up until now, we've been very limited as far as the commercial fishing industry is concerned," she said. "I really think things would really take off if we could bring in those big boats."

Capt. Michael Senker also makes his living on the water, taking anglers 20 to 30 miles offshore on his 42-foot powerboat, Thunder. Extreme low tides during the fall, winter and early spring would sometimes force Senker to wait for the water to rise, delaying departures for fisherman eager to be on their way.

Often, he'd take his chances.

"I used to have a headache by the time I got out there, being puckered up the whole way wondering if I'm going to make it," he said. "Now I can run in and out at my leisure. More people will be willing to go now because they know they won't have to wait."

Gordon Wolf and fellow investors bought a shuttered marina on Calienta Street in January 2011, about the same time county officials received a bid for the dredging that was higher than the amount budgeted. The skepticism surrounding the project at that point hit another peak.

"Smart people around here said it was never going to happen, but they said you can still go out in a small boat," Wolf recalled.

Wolf and his investors initially planned to make some improvements to the property and sell it. "But when we were cleaning it up, we discovered what a jewel this area is," he said.

They still plan to sell the property, but in the meantime, they're officially in the marina business, celebrating a grand opening earlier this month.

Located directly across the street from the Hernando Beach public boat ramp, the operation features a marine supply store in a renovated 6,000-square-foot building. Storage for boats weighing up to 30,000 pounds is available in an 11,000-square-foot barn, and another barn is planned. The marina also accepts boats on consignment, and buys boats to refurbish and resell.

The deeper channel bodes well for Wolf's investment, he said.

"Bigger boats mean bigger revenue," he said. "Our business should do much better."

Dwayne Adams said he used to hear complaints from customers pulling their boats into one of 17 slips at Hernando Beach Suites and Condos. His mother owns the business and he manages it.

"They'd say they hit bottom with a 3-foot (draft) boat," said Adams, himself the owner of two boats. "Now you don't have that problem.

"In the long run, I think we're going to have more activity, getting larger boats and more people coming out here to visit and live."

• • •

For some, the joy of the completed dredge project is tempered by Hernando Beach's lingering underwater reality.

The access waterway that snakes around the community's waterfront and into the main channel was not part of the project, and shallow spots continue to block access for boaters and businesses during low tide.

"Honestly, we're not going to benefit," said Keith Ralston, manager of Gulf Star Marina on Shoal Line Boulevard.

Offering wet slips, dry storage and service, Gulf Star sits on a canal at the end of the access channel. Big boats will now have an easier time navigating the main channel but will still have problems making it to Gulf Star and two other nearby marinas, Ralston said.

A 44-foot sailboat with a 6-foot draft on the way to the marina recently got stuck in a bend near Gulfview Circle.

"He sat there for a couple of days because the tide wasn't high enough for him to get in," Ralston said. "We get them all the time like that."

A grass roots effort is underway to address a couple of similar problems in a northern section of the access channel.

Hernando Beach resident Frank Santos has helped spearhead the campaign to dredge two high spots near the Hernando Beach Club. The channel is only about 3 1/2 feet deep at low tide, blocking access for larger boats on their way to the newly dredged main channel.

Santos had argued the problems should have been fixed before the dredging contractor left the area, but county officials said the work would have to be done as a separate project.

In recent weeks, Santos has made presentations to the Hernando County Port Authority and the Hernando Beach Property Owners Association and consulted with the county and the state Department of Environmental Protection. The plan is to reach out to property owners near the high spots who can seek their own permits to clean up the areas.

The cost of the project is expected to run from about $120,000 to $150,000. Discussions are underway about soliciting donations and organizing fundraisers.

"It doesn't make sense to not fix it,'' Santos said. "I'm very, very confident about it."

Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this story. Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@tampabay.com.

Dredging clears the way for larger boats in the Hernando Beach Channel 03/24/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 24, 2012 12:23pm]
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