Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

Despite predictions that construction work in Crescent City Harbor would fall short of providing enough space for the local commercial fishing fleet, almost three weeks of 24/7 work just might do the trick.

On Friday evening, representatives of Dutra Construction, the lead contractor for the inner boat basin reconstruction project, said that they expect to have 72 new steel pilings installed by midnight tonight, the deadline for in-water work until June. Floating docks that will be attached to those pilings are expected to provide enough space for Crescent City's entire local fishing fleet - the minimum objective for this year's first phase of dock reconstruction after the March 11, 2011, tsunami.

"It looks almost certain that by the end of the day the prescribed number of piles will be installed," said Harry Stewart, president and chief operating officer of Dutra.

Earlier in the day, others had been less optimistic, including harbor commissioners and lead harbor engineer Ward Stover. They were lamenting the apparent failure to install sufficient pilings..

Stewart emphasized the significance of the harbor district's successful pursuit of an extension of the in-water work window, an annual restriction which originally expired Nov. 15.

The deadline is due to California Coastal Commission concerns over possible negative impacts on salmonids in nearby Elk Creek.

Since Dutra only had 46 pilings installed by Nov. 15 (33 of which were only partially in place), the extension was crucial for installing pilings needed for the forthcoming crab season.

Although a groundbreaking ceremony for harbor reconstruction was held in early July, drilling for pilings didn't begin until Nov. 1.

Construction delays started when Dutra proposed an alternative pile-driving method that was intended to be faster, cheaper and have less environmental impacts.

The harbor's engineering team was initially skeptical of the new method, but willing to be scientifically convinced.

This new method involved a custom-built drill bit with retractable teeth, known as an underreamer expansion bit. With the teeth contracted, the bit goes through theentire length of the 70-foot long, 30-inch-wide steel piling. Then the teeth expand to drill a hole very close to the same diameter of the piling.

The original method proposed in the project contract involved drilling a 48-inch diameter hole, precisely locating the 30-inch wide piling in the hole, and then cementing the piling in place.

In August, in a Triplicate Coastal Voices piece, Harbormaster Richard Young explained the common practice known as "value engineering:"

"Once a successful bidder is selected, that bidder can propose less expensive methods of building the project. If the less expensive method is accepted by the owner, the contractor and owner split the cost savings," Young wrote.

Through the alternative method, the harbor district was poised to save roughly $90,000 and Dutra would save $360,000, according to initial rough estimates.

The harbor's engineering team ultimately concluded in early September that the new technique was as strong as the original, and as soon as the custom drill-bit was delivered to the harbor, pile driving could begin.

But the waiting was the hardest part.

Week after week, the drill bit was expected to arrive soon. Fabrication of the underreamer drill bit took nearly two months, even though Dutra officials said they were originally told by the fabricator that it would be constructed in two weeks.

The bit arrived on Halloween, and on Nov. 1, Dutra successfully installed one test piling. When Dutra pressed ahead on the first official piling, some of the bit's retractable teeth became loose, putting drilling on hold once again.

The teeth were fixed and drilling commenced, successfully installing at least 11 pilings before trouble struck again.

During the second week of November, the drill bit experienced a massive failure, including piston failure and a cracked case. The entire assembly was sent back to the fabricator near Eugene, Ore., and has yet to be returned.

"It was a series of unforeseeable and unplanned equipment delays," said Dutra official Stewart.

Operating on extensions from the Coastal Commission, Dutra continued to install pilings with a third method: using a combination of a vibratory hammer and a 26-inch-wide drill bit to install pilings.

The contingency plan proved to pass muster as it now appears that by switching to it,Dutra will have finished installing more than 50 pilings 20 to 40 feet into the basin bedrock ina few short weeks.

"We're not letting things slide to get things done faster," said harbor engineer Stover. "If it means quality versus time we're going to stick to quality."

Harbor and Dutra officials said Friday night they expect to have roughly 103 slips by the beginning of crab season on Dec. 31 - close to the 106 slips available last year. Originally, the district had planned to have 20 or 30 more slips than last year, and it will miss out on the revenue it expected to collect from those slips.

Before the tsunami, the harbor had more than 200 slips.

Young said he has already had to turn away dozens of fishing vessels whose owners were interested in renting space in Crescent City.

But since docks can continue to be launched and attached to the pilings already installed throughout the winter, Young said more slips should become available in the coming months.

Young emphasized that this first construction phase was a "learning experience," and that the five and a half months of pile-driving next summer should go much smoother.

With the benefit of hindsight, harbor commissioners and staff may have stuck to the original plan, but Dutra officials claim they are delivering on what was promised.

During Young's weekly meeting with inner boat basin tenants, concerns were raised about having enough available slips for the local fleet.

Young lamented: "We are trying to fit 10 pounds of flour in a 5-pound sack."

Fishermen, harbor staff and Dutra themselves will find out by tonight whether or not that sack got a little larger.

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