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Be Vigilant for Unidentified Floating Objects at Sea

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Imagine that perfect night watch with full sails, warm sea air, a starry sky that portends fair weather and no one in sight. It is what you cannot see that is worrisome. On this glorious night the last thing you are thinking of is a piece of dry dock gone afloat on its way to the Canary Islands.

Turn the clock back to September 2017 when a dry dock from the former Avondale shipyard on Mississippi River was purchased by Tenerife, a Canary Island. The new owners named the dry dock Ercolino IV and it departed the Mississippi River under tow on September 1, 2017. On September 9, 2017 hurricane Irma made landfall on the northern coast of Cuba, and apparently split the Ercolino IV in two or more pieces. There are reports, supported by photographs that on October 13, 2017 at least one part of the Ercolino IV was towed to Kingston, Jamaica. The intact portion of Ercolino IV was towed to Tenerife and arrived on January 6, 2018.

Gyres Big Trash Eddies and Rubber Ducks

Entire dry dock with wing wall circled-1
Entire dry dock with wing wall circled-1

It is not clear exactly where the drydock split in half and what happened to all of the part of Ercolino IV that broke off, but we do know that a wing wall tank took a journey from the Gulf of Mexico into the Atlantic, south of Bermuda and washed up at Little Farmer’s Cay in Exuma, Bahamas.

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During the period from May 9, 2018 to August 20, 2018, there were five sightings of the wing wall tank in the area south of Bermuda. On November 6, 2018 the same wing wall tank showed up in Farmer’s Cay Cut, Exuma, Bahamas, where it is currently beached on a coral reef and has been secured and lighted. The tank is roughly 20’x 80’ and weighs between 155 and 210 tons and has dug a four-foot crater in the coral reef where it landed. The Bahamian government has not responded to a request for the future plans for the dry dock, but one possibility is to take it out of the cut and sink it. The tank contains no pollutants and would make a good artificial reef.

Subbase Drydock Launches New & Improved Drydocks

Entire Ercolino IV
Entire Ercolino IV

Where did the Ercolino IV go for the fourteen months between leaving the Mississippi and beaching in the Bahamas? It seems likely that the dry dock exited the Gulf of Mexico between Florida and Cuba and the gulfstream transported it to the Sargasso Sea where it circulated until it got loose of the current and drifted to the Bahamas.

Ocean currents flow in complex patterns affected by wind, water density and salinity, solar heating of the waters near the equator, topography of the ocean floor and the rotation of the earth. Currents develop large ocean eddies called gyres and the North Atlantic gyre is 1,200 x 3,000 nautical miles, with a 8,000 nautical mile circumference. (“Flotsametrics and the Floating World” by Curt Ebbsemeyer and Eric Scigliano, 2009. HarperCollins Press). The Sargasso Sea is a gyre within the Atlantic gyre. The cooler and faster moving currents of the Gulf Stream and the North Equatorial currents surround the calm salty waters of Sargasso Sea and make it difficult for floating debris to exit. Ebbsemeyer hypothesizes that the wing tank spent one year drifting in the Sargasso Sea and three months drifting in the Atlantic gyre (aka the Atlantic garbage Patch).

A Rich Sense of History at Subbase Drydock

Ercolino IV drifting at sea
Ercolino IV drifting at sea

Regardless of the exact path of the Ercolino IV, this should serve as a reminder to be vigilant for unidentified floating objects at sea.

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  1. I am a 40 year veteran of Avondale Shipyard. i have found memories of working on that big dry dock. It was built in the shipyard in a DIY project . I feel profound sadness over it’s destruction. Too bad for Tennerife. They should have planned the transport better.


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Devi Sharp is a retired wildlife biologist and exploring the Caribbean with her husband, Hunter, on their sailboat Arctic Tern.

So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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