The Heidi-Renee appeared on the water in early December.
One day, it was business as usual in the channel leading from Marina del Rey to the sea: kayakers, sailboats, water-skimming pelicans, the occasional sea lion.
The next day, there she was, just inside the breakwater, a 220-foot dredge with her entourage, a tugboat named Norton Bay and a scow named Sand Island.
My running partner, Kathy Kelleher-McCarthy, and I, who look for any excuse to interrupt our daily exertions (we brake for puppies), stopped at the western end of the Marina's north jetty, transfixed by the dredge's immense orange clam-shell bucket. We watched as it sank below the surface, jaws agape, before coming up clenched and full to drop loads of wet sand into the scow. When we run in the evening, we stop to admire her. With her lights on, she is spectacular in twilight.
During our runs, Kathy and I spend a lot of time speculating about things that elude us. For us, the dredge was the perfect vessel for discussion: Why now? Where does all the sand go? How long would the dredge be there? Who works there? Does her presence harm marine life?
Eventually — and I am not saying I am proud of how long this took — it occurred to me that the answers were probably just a phone call away.
"It's a very simple operation," said Carol Baker, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors, when I reached her by phone Monday. "There's a lot of shoaling that occurs in that area, and we need to make sure everyone can get in and out."
Her office put me in touch with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the dredging work, which in turn put me in touch with Darrell Jamieson, the dredge's 53-year-old superintendent who works for J.E. McAmis, a big marine construction company based in Chico.
The Heidi-Renee, as it turns out, roams up and down the West Coast. She's no stranger to attention. In October 2014, she was named "Boat of the Month" by her hometown paper, the Astoria Journal. Also, World Dredging magazine is featuring the dredge next month.
This job, budgeted by the feds at $2.7 million, was supposed to last four months, Jamieson told me, but his crew members, who work in groups of three or four in 12-hour shifts around the clock, will be done in about a week. That's mostly because the weather has been so good, he said, sounding amused at complaints by locals that "this has been one of the rougher winters."
When it's finished, the dredge will have removed 385,000 cubic yards of sand from the channel's northern entrance, where boats were beginning to run aground on accumulating sand shoals. The scow, which fills every three to four hours with about 2,000 tons of sand, is tugged south a couple miles, where she is emptied into the waters off Dockweiler State Beach.
The tugboat has a separate four-man crew. Each round trip takes 90 minutes, giving the dredge crew a break to grab a snack, do maintenance, or perhaps cook lobster tails offered by the fishermen.
Coincidentally, the new sand off Dockweiler has improved the break there, which has proved to be a boon for Al Hansen, a 34-year-old surferPortland, Ore.-based foodie who works as a deckhand on the Heidi-Renee.
"The surfing crowd here is tight knit," he told me Tuesday. A guy like him, with out-of-state license plates on his truck, is probably not going to be welcomed with open arms by residents. And yet, once they learn he's works on the dredge, he said, "You kind of get a golden ticket. No one is going to mess with you."
On Monday, which was hot and sunny inland but cold and foggy at the beach, I boarded a 32-foot Munson Landing Craft with John Giles, Marina del Rey district manager for the Department of Beaches and Harbors, and Nicole Mooradian, a public information officer.
They had offered to take me to the dredge, and I was eager for a closer look because, like many grown-ups, there lives inside me an eternal 4-year-old, fascinated by large machinery. Visibility was less than a quarter-mile, which made taking photos a disaster.
While we cruised to the dredge, Mooradian told me about her assignment that morning at Zuma Beach, where crews were knocking down the sand berms bulldozed into place each winter to protect structures from storm surge and flooding.
If you've ever visited the Venice Pier in the wintertime, you've probably seen kids on cardboard boxes sledding down the man-made dunes. Last year, a petition circulated among beachfront neighbors south of Washington Boulevard, complaining about the height of the berms, which obstructed some first-floor views. (The petition, deservedly, went nowhere.)
A clump of colorful balloons bobbed in the water. Giles pulled alongside it, got out his gaffe and harpooned the offending mylar.
"That makes the trip worth it," he said.
We sat in the water for a few minutes, watching the bucket claw do its awesome work.
On the way back to the dock, Giles took a short detour around the outside of the breakwater, something I've only seen from the air when I fly out of L.A. International Airport. Pelicans, cormorants, sea gulls, responsible for the stinky, white layer of guano on the breakwater, seemed unperturbed by the dredge.
One day soon, like the sand berms that seem to disappear as mysteriously as they appear, the dredge will leave. The Heidi-Renee will head back to Washington, where she is expected at Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment, at the mouth of the Columbia River.
We probably won't even notice she's gone.