What It Takes to Be Superior at Marine Construction
Donald Anderson, Project Manager and expert at marine construction, has been in the construction business for 19 years and at Superior Construction for five. Some might say he was born to do marine construction — he was literally baptized on the water. His father was a naval officer, and he was baptized on the USS Texas in the officer’s mess by the ship’s Catholic chaplain. In construction, he says he “cut his teeth” on dry land, but because he loves boats and is so comfortable on the water, he was drawn to learn the ins and outs of marine construction.
Donald has a degree in engineering, which requires a lot of attention to detail. And as he says, “Marine construction is all about the detail.” Compared to land construction, the marine aspect adds eight to 10 additional layers. “There is more of everything — planning, logistics, safety, equipment — it makes dry land construction look simple,” says Donald.
So what exactly does it take to complete a construction project on the water? What makes it so different from land — and more challenging? We talked to Donald about how marine construction works, the dynamic nature of projects, and the technical skill and care required for the job he knows and loves.
Planning and Logistics
Planning takes almost twice as long for every person on the job — from project managers to to superintendents for foremen. “You have to know what you are going to do weeks to months ahead of time compared to the timeline of land construction,” says Donald.
Superior recently completed the Coastline Dr and Liberty St Bridge Replacement project in Jacksonville, Florida that was done entirely on the water. A tugboat brought equipment to the job site from a nearby pier, and each trip took four hours one way. “You can’t just forget something you need and retrieve it — you don’t have that luxury,” says Donald. “Every time you do that on dry land it costs money, but when it starts taking hours… If a crane on a barge costs $295 an hour, and it’s just sitting there while you wait for something to be pushed from point A to B, money gets serious real quick. You need to have everything required for the day or week before you leave the dock.”
Good preplanning and logistics helps immensely at keeping costs down. Donald explains, “The work we did at the beginning of the job becomes priceless, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars on the back side.”
Equipment and Barges
The majority of the equipment, like cranes, used in marine construction are the same as land, aside from a few modified features. Where marine construction equipment gets specific is in the various types of barges — all different and specific to use. Donald explains the three types:
- Demolition barge: has walls and deck so if you drop something it doesn’t puncture a hole.
- Transportation barge: has a steel deck and dunnage that has to be specific to lock down what’s being hauled, so when you encounter waves nothing shifts.
- Crane barge: has spuds, which are like a pile you can lower into the water to keep the barge in location. It has winches for pulling up the spuds. And a ballast, which is a tank inside the cranes, which provides stability and keeps the barge from listing during crane work.
Weight and Balance
Which brings us to the nature of working on a barge. Donald explains that, with no stable ground, you constantly have to do calculations for list and pitch. “To put it simply, cranes pick up big things,” says Donald. “When they do that, their weight shifts back and forth like when standing on your feet. When you lift things with the crane, the entire barge will settle down or the deck will move toward where you are moving heavily. If you pick up something too heavy, you can roll the entire barge into the water.”
“So with everything you lift,” explains Donald, “you need to know how much it weighs and how big it is. We do buoyancy calculations for every piece of work.”
Complicating logistics, operators have to know exactly the order they are going to use materials before loading a barge. As an example, on the Jacksonville project, the precast piles each weighed 38,000 pounds. Superior carried nine at a time on one barge. We had to create a loading plan, and load the piles backward from the order we would be removing them. The order had to alternate from left to right to keep the barge balanced, prevent too much lean, and keep the barge from rolling as piles were removed.
Dynamics and Safety
With so many risks, safety matters. “Everything is dynamic,” says Donald. “From a safety point of view, everything moves. That is one of our watch words for employees: ‘Dynamic.’ If you are crossing from one barge to the next, it could be going closer or further. If you are standing there, you could be thinking it is level and it’s not. If there is rain, you can slide and end up in the water. Everything moves — nothing stops moving.”
“With complacency, you can pay for it with your life,” says Donald. “This is true in any construction, but it becomes apparent in marine work.” Because of all the risks, marine construction follows an extra layer of safety standards. In addition to OSHA, marine construction work follows US Coast Guard rules for floating vessels. The work requires man overboard drills, fire drills on the tug boats, and safety standards for diving crews.
“And sometimes man overboard drills aren’t drills — people go into the water,” says Donald. “Imagine getting someone out when the current going by is 8 knots, visibility is zero, and the deck of the barge is five feet over the top of the water.”
So in marine construction, Donald says, “you have a lot of drills, safety equipment, and paying attention.”
With all these factors, the crew matters. You need people with the knowledge and technical skill to keep the project moving along safely. “At Superior, we hire people who are intelligent enough to react quickly to deal with any eventuality,” says Donald. “The advantage Superior has is that our guys are so skilled and many have been with the company so long, we have the construction aspect down pat. They can adapt to excel at marine construction because they are so smart.”
With all of these challenges, how does anyone become a marine construction expert? Donald has learned by listening and doing. “There’s no school you can go to to learn how to do this,” Donald says. “A generation of people before you know how to do this work. Pay attention to what they are saying and apply it.” He adds that it takes, “a lot of common sense, and a lot of error. Sometimes you just have to roll up your sleeves and go for it. Sometimes you end up doing it hard, sometimes you end up doing it smart. You try to remember how it worked out smart.”
Superior Marine Construction
Superior’s expert crews have certainly put the time and effort in to excel. “Superior brings the skill and technical ability to plan and execute marine construction projects,” says Donald. “We have the experience to be prophetic in the way we can anticipate what could go wrong, and we put safeguards in place when something goes wrong. You need know-how to deal with issues.”
“Owners like when we show up and say, ‘This is how we’ll do it — this is how we’ve done it before.’ They like that we know what to do,” says Donald. “It speaks to our stubbornness, skill, and ability to execute even the most difficult marine construction projects.”