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Rapa Nui

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The Rapa Nui Reef is now ruined.

What went wrong and what’s next?

By Michele Carassco

Photos by Howie Grapek, gpo photography

Like the pull of the sea to newly-hatched sea turtles, the spectators were drawn to Deerfield Beach to witness history. Residents and tourists, young and old, streamed from side streets and parking lots to join the crowd as it gathered on and near the International Fishing Pier. The feeling that something exciting and important was about to happen was visceral. At 10:00am on Sunday, June 7, local spear-fishing legend Jim “Chiefy” Mathie welcomed the crowd of VIPs assembled at the end of the pier. He gave a brief history of how this project evolved from a vague concept six years ago to an actual event taking place, and taking its place in history, today: the sinking of the Rapa Nui artificial reef. It was designed to be the largest underwater public art display in the world. Just over an hour later, the whole thing was upside-down and crushed under the weight of the heavy barge used to float it into position.

While being interviewed in his dive gear upon returning from the dive site, Arilton Pavan of Dixie Divers told reporters in broken English that it was supposed to be “a controlled sink, that’s means a small amount of water going in, and slowly taking place. You want to see the deck under water. As soon as the deck be under water complete, is no more flip… I think the tow boat tried to help, the big tow boat, but he make so much wave toward one side, took more water than supposed to one side… I didn’t advise to do that. The idea was to keep water coming even even even. Was really good actually, but started to make waves, took too much water to one side, and started flipping, and that was not good at that point…  It was a great project… We knew some risk was involved, but— it’s there.”

In the beginnning

To truly understand the enormity of this project, both past and future, one needs to start in 2009 when the Miracle of Life became Deerfield Beach’s newest artificial reef. That project was led by Arilton Pavan, owner of Dixie Divers for the last 18 years. While he and his team were orchestrating that event, a young man happened to be taking a dive class at Dixie Divers and heard about their plans. When he mentioned this story to his mother, Boca Raton resident Margaret Blume, he unwittingly sparked in her an idea to synthesize some of her passions—art, the ocean, and philanthropy.

Fast forward a few years later, Margaret approached Pavan, as he is known, to start a conversation about a future installation of a large underwater work of art. She showed him some pictures that inspired her—an underwater sculpture park off the coast of Grenada, created by artist Jason deCaires Taylor. Utilizing his experience and contacts, Pavan started assembling a team, while Margaret brainstormed potential themes. She finally decided on Easter Island, the Polynesian name of which is Rapa Nui. Easter Island is one of the world’s most remote locations, more than 3,000 miles from the Chilean mainland. Giant statues there, called moai (pronounced mo-eye.) How these giant stone statues were moved into place has been the speculated for decades. These figureheads represent the ancestors of the Polynesians who worshiped them on Easter Island in the 13th through 15th centuries. So the search for an artist began. The team looked far and wide but the challenge was to find someone who could build something this large… using the medium of concrete. Eventually the team did find someone, actually in their own backyard; an artist named Dennis MacDonald, owner of Zibitz Studioz in Pompano Beach. He is credited with over 30 years of creating projects for Sea World, Universal Studios, Worldwide Sportsman, and the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia. Dennis and Margaret shared the vision, and over time, the concept began evolving and crystallizing.

The Woman’s Club of Deerfield Beach (DBWC) was selected as Administrator and Sponsor of the Rapa Nui project for several reasons. First, as a 96 year old club, it is an intricate part of the fabric of Deerfield Beach. It is also a 501c3 organization, and therefore is able to act as Administrator for Margaret Blume’s philanthropic trust. Margaret is not only the Founder and Project Director, but the sole benefactor of the $500,000 project as well. Marti McGeary, the long-time President of DBWC until recently, said of Margaret, “this is her vision, her legacy. She had the funds to do it and it’s a wonderful thing.” Meanwhile, in a quiet waterway in Stuart, Dennis’ team worked long hours, pouring concrete into molds to form the Moai. Just as the ancient Polynesians placed the Moai on platforms, so did the artist affix the statues on the concrete deck of the 150 by 45 foot barge. He built a rubble wall of concrete, reinforced with re-purposed steel, to support the 15 Moai and create passageways for divers to navigate. The 9 foot high hull of the barge itself was partially filled with concrete, and the bilge had access holes for divers to explore as well. The Moai ranged in size from 6 to 22 feet tall.

The concrete surface and structures are perfect to stimulate the rapid growth of algae and coral, which in turn attracts marine life. The marine conservation aspect of this project appealed to all the players, as did the notion of public art on a grand scale. The hope was that Deerfield Beach would gain notoriety from the Rapa Nui Reef and become an international dive destination, much like the Christ statue has done for the Keys. It’s known as “nautical tourism.”

True ruins

At 10:30am, armed with sledge hammers, crew members knocked out the aluminum screw jacks in the pre-cut scuttle holes. As water flooded in, they quickly scurried back aboard the boat, which pulled away from the sinking barge. It looked as if the scuttling was proceeding as planned, until suddenly, it all went awry. The barge listed, fell to its port side, and plunged the Moai face down into the ocean. There was a big splash followed by a steady churning of water as the entire structure sank. On video taken from the Dixie Divers boat, one could hear Margaret Blume bemoaning the tragedy. When one of the Moai bobbed up to the surface, she scolded it to “go join your brothers” and it obeyed. Within a few hours, news stories and videos were all over the web and TV, just as the organizers had hoped. But instead of showing a beautiful, intact piece of sculptural art, the images were of an overturned rusty old barge, lying atop crushed concrete and mangled steel, in 70 feet of water; not quite the happy ending they envisioned. The crazy thing is, that despite the unfortunate outcome of this enormous undertaking, the team still accomplished its goals. There is a new artificial reef in Deerfield Beach, which did attract a lot of attention and raise money for public art, and it will bring nautical tourism to the area. After all, nobody can avert their eyes from a train wreck, and now we have one in the ocean. It may not be same the beautiful sculpture it was, but it’s where it was meant to be.

So what went wrong?

It seems few are in agreement over the exact cause of the barge flipping. After careful review of the photographs, several videos and interviews with participants in the project, it appears that a confluence of factors created tragic results.
The Design
The design of the art project “faced” one direction. That seems odd for a reef installation that would be viewed by divers from all angles. As for the sinking, it looks as if more weight was placed on the north side of the barge (north at the time of the sinking.) Although impossible to tell without a very large scale, photographs show more volume of statues on the north-facing side of the barge. Even the media boats and the tow boats were positioned on the north side— more about them below.
The Current
According to Howie Grapek, one the first divers on the scene, the current was slight, but definitely southbound. Even a slow current would force tons of water per minute against the north side of the barge. That pressure would push more water per minute into the scuttle holes on that side while decreasing the pressure on the south side —a double-whammy of unequal water flow into the barge. In a video by Deerfield Beach resident Julie Wheeler, the only video found shot facing the bow of the barge, it can be seen when the scuttle holes on the south side breached the surface, “It was all over” agreed Dr. Richard Dodge, Dean of the Nova Southeastern Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography. A simple fix would have been to make the scuttle holes on the south side larger. In addition, as the barge lowered into the water, the current pushed against a larger and larger flat-sided obstacle causing it’s center of mass to tip northward.
The Tow boat
From the videos and drone footage, the 68-foot tow boat “Sonny” is seen using its prop wash against the barge—also on the north side, adding to the current pressure. Owner Cory Offutt of Miami-based Biscayne Towing and Salvage, said that the Sonny’s captain was asked “to provide some thrust and move the barge.” Bruce Sugar, an operating engineer with Bunnell Foundation, a marine contractor, said he also thought the barge was sinking as planned until the tug’s maneuvering threw prop wash up onto the deck according to a Sun-Sentinel interview.
Ballast Reports indicate 400 tons of concrete was on the deck of the barge while 200 tons of scrap concrete was placed inside on the bottom of the barge to make it “bottom-heavy.”  If you remove the first factors above, this ballast could have been more than adequate for the task but clearly more ballast was needed to compensate. “The barge flipped over because it had too much weight on the deck and it was too high,” said Offutt.  Sugar agreed with Offutt that the barge was top heavy. “We should have put more concrete in the bottom,” Sugar said.

Now what?

According to Jim “Chiefy” Mathie, the team still recognizes the value of the site, and they are planning to make improvements. Artist Dennis MacDonald suggested many ideas and intends to use the molds to re-create some of the Moai and place them in the ocean. Broward County has verbally pledged $65,000 worth of limestone boulders to add to the site to make it more interesting. “There is no plan to flip the barge. It is what it is,” according to Mathie. The bottom is now the top and the top is crushed on the bottom. Divers have actively been diving the site, and as plans are finalized and changes are made, the hope is that it will still be the international dive destination they intended.

The Guy Harvey Foundation, who has endorsed this project, has reached out to offer their assistance, but nothing has been planned yet. The Women’s Club is setting up an online donation system to link to all the players’ websites and Facebook pages. Already the events this weekend yielded about $9,000 that goes toward public art in Deerfield Beach, and Two Georges is planning to donate something as well.
At the breaking of the mold ceremony back in April, artist Dennis MacDonald seemed to foreshadow Rapa Nui’s fate when he remarked, “I look at it like, we build it, we give it to nature, and she takes over. And who knows what this is gonna look like in twenty years, thirty, a hundred, a thousand years from now.” Mother nature worked faster than he imagined, but still, as Dennis also said, “It will be there forever.”

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