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As the new presenting sponsor of the RBC Heritage, Boeing South Carolina officials considered wining and dining guests aboard the company's corporate yacht for this year's tournament.
But Boeing quickly dropped the idea, in part because the Harbour Town Yacht Basin couldn't accommodate the company's yacht, the Daedalus. Silt has been building up on the bottom of the yacht basin for years, making it too shallow for large yachts like the Daedalus.
Most of the yacht basin is only 4 1/2 to 5 feet deep at average low tide; the Daedalus needs more than twice that much depth.
"One of the reasons (for not bringing the yacht) was we would have had to anchor offshore and use a dingy to ferry people back and forth, but it was one, very brief discussion," Boeing spokeswoman Candy Eslinger said.
Sediment is clotting not only the yacht basin, but several other waterways in Sea Pines, making it difficult for boats to get in or out at low tide. The problem has been discussed for years with no resolution. Private groups have paid for dredging in the past, but they say costs have increased to the point that they can no longer afford it.
Boeing and the Royal Bank of Canada declined comment on the issue, but some Sea Pines officials and town leaders worry a muddy yacht basin could tarnish the tournament's image. The marina is a 7-iron shot from the 18th green at Harbour Town Golf Links, home of the tournament. Television coverage of the annual event has for years delivered images around the globe, with the marina, the candy-striped lighthouse and spectators aboard gleaming yachts serving as the sun-splashed backdrop.
Tournament director Steve Wilmot said the yacht basin helps set the RBC Heritage apart from other events on the PGA Tour and is invaluable to marketing the tournament and island.
"If you look at last year's tournament, CBS put us over the top with its aerial views of the course and Hilton Head and the scenic views of the waters of Calibogue Sound," Wilmot said.
If the silting gets worse, Wilmot said, "it certainly will impact all of the broadcasts, for sure. The yacht basin is something that is an asset to the event. That's no question."
The yacht basin's harbormaster, Nancy Cappelmann, said she's had to keep close track of the size of the boats inquiring about reserving slips at Harbour Town. Trying to fit in yachts and prevent them from getting stuck in mud at low tide has become a demanding choreography -- twice a day at low tide, most boats can't travel in and out of the channel between Calibogue Sound and the marina, she said.
The yacht basin has "lost a lot of regular customers who are now bypassing us," Cappelmann said.
Reservations for slips in the marina look good for the tournament, she said, but the vessels will be smaller than those that tied up in the past, she said.
Commercial sightseeing and charter operations that operate from the marina also are taking a hit. Vagabond Cruise has eliminated crew positions on its 65-foot-long yacht because the water is not deep enough to run full-time, company president Keith Walston said.
"We can't run a 1 to 2:30 p.m. cruise after lunch or a 6 to 8 p.m. sunset cruise with a low tide at 3, 4 or 5 p.m.," Walston said. "Afternoon to sunset hours is when we're in prime demand, but with a low tide in the afternoon, we can't run. About half of the days during the month we can't operate."
"If we had the boat without these restrictions, we could sell it to visitors, corporate groups and events during the RBC Heritage, but we can't," he said.
REGULATORS QUESTION TESTING
Discussions on the best and most affordable way to deepen the yacht basin and the other waterways have been going on for years and have aroused controversy.
A proposal last year to require Sea Pines residents to help pay for removing and disposing of the silt died quickly when many residents objected.
A short-term plan to dredge the yacht basin was derailed in September after Calibogue Cay property owners rejected a request for one-time use of the disposal site in that neighborhood.
Sea Pines and slip owners also considered using parts of the Sea Pines Forest Preserve and a disposal site about 10 miles offshore near the mouth of Port Royal Sound.
None of the options turned out to be feasible because of cost, regulatory hurdles, objections from residents or liability concerns.
A task force concluded last year that pumping silt out and then disposing of it in Calibogue Sound on an outgoing tide was the least expensive option with the least threat to the environment.
Representatives of the South Island Dredging Association, made up of boat-slip owners and Sea Pines residents, met with state and federal regulators Jan. 11 in Charleston to discuss the proposal.
After reviewing it, the regulators asked the association to confirm that sediment testing done in 2000 and 2008 is still accurate and that it be more precise in determining potential harm to endangered species, fish habitat and nearby marshes, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Charleston District spokesman Sean McBride said.
The association claims the sediment that was tested meets permitting standards for inshore disposal. McBride said regulators have asked the association to confirm their conclusions.
The South Island Dredging association is following up on the requests.
"The scientific testing and modeling studies required (by federal regulators) are proceeding on schedule," association spokesman Jack Brinkley said in an email.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead