When I took the exam for my captain’s license, it was a grueling ordeal administered at the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters at the Battery in Manhattan. Before the test began, the moderator told us that once we had finished with the navigation, rules of the road, chart reading etc., the hardest part would be over, and if we wanted to spend an additional half hour, we could get our towing certification. I figured “may as well.” Consequently, I’m allowed to “engage in commercial towing assistance up to 100 gross tons.” At my brother’s marina, we used to do it quite often, mostly towing boats but occasionally after a storm we’d tow a dock or some other large, unwieldy flotsam. Since I’ve been here on the lake it happens very rarely.

However, once a year the Lake Lanier Association sponsors “Shore Sweep.” This is a big event where more than 1,400 volunteers comb the lake picking up trash. A lot of this trash just comes from thoughtless people not caring what they do with their beer cans, Styrofoam, picnic waste and everything else imaginable. Some of it comes from boaters and other people around the lake but a lot of it is washed down from the storm sewers after a heavy rain. Bottom line is all of it winds up in our lake and if it isn’t picked up, the lake will eventually become a gigantic wet dumpster!

A view of Lake Lanier shoreline with black encapsulated foam support floats for a dock - that has become trash on the lake.

A couple of “square groupers” along the lake’s shoreline.

The items of trash that I’m most interested in are the black encapsulated foam support floats that break loose from docks. These things are about four feet square and a foot and a half high. Each of them weighs about 500 pounds. They always remind me of the “Square Groupers” (bales of marijuana wrapped in plastic found floating around the Florida Keys) that Jimmy Buffet sings about. They usually wash up and sit quietly on the shore. But during a big storm some might break loose from a dock, or the rain raises the lake level, and they float away. You can see them drifting around the lake during the day. At night, however, they are almost impossible to see and become a real hazard to navigation. Hitting one at high speed could be a disaster for a boat and the people in it, but it wouldn’t bother the float too much.

I’ve been doing Shore Sweep since 1996, and my former college roommate, Bob Neyman has been involved since 1989. He still has the 1994 commemorative T-shirt. Another friend, Brian Cantel, has been volunteering since 2001. He has connections with the Boy Scouts, Rotary Club, South Hall Business Coalition, and International Students Federation. With these connections, Brian is able to persuade Lake Lanier Islands to donate the use of several large pontoon boats for the day and enlist a bunch of young, energetic volunteers to work with us.

Now down to the nitty-gritty: what we’re hunting for are the “Square Groupers.” I come armed with a bunch of heavy spikes and battery-powered electric drill with a ½ inch masonry bit, because it’s almost impossible to drive a spike through the slick, heavy plastic cover of the float. I also bring along a heavy hammer to drive the spikes and about a dozen tow ropes of various lengths. In addition, a couple of six foot 2×4 pry bars are needed to get the heavy floats off the beach.

I grab about a dozen college students because they have a lot of energy, take instructions well and you have the synergy of the boys trying to impress the girls and the girls trying to look like they’re not impressed. It works well to get a lot done in a short amount of time.

Then we get assigned a section of lake, climb aboard, and go hunting. As soon as we spot the quarry, we land the pontoon and about half of the gang heads up and down the beach to pick up trash while the other half muscles the big float into the water. We drill a hole in the skin, pound in an iron spike and attach a tow line. Then we head off in search of the next floating menace. Usually, we get about six to eight floats because that’s all we can easily tow, but one trip we snagged 12. This in addition to all the trash the beachcombers pick up, makes quite a haul, and significantly adds to the total tonnage. (This is just a point of pride, because even though they post the total weight of trash collected at the end, there is no way of knowing who collected what).

On the way back, one of the crew inevitably asks if he/she can ride on a float and then they all want to do it. I make sure each “Square Grouper Rider” is wearing a life preserver and assign someone as a lookout to keep an eye on them. We must look like a mama duck being followed by all her little ducklings!

When we knock off about 12:30, the Rotary Club treats all the volunteers to lunch. After an invigorating day out on the water, it feels good to have done our part in helping to keep the lake clear of trash and navigational hazards.

For more info, check out Pamela Keene’s post at www.lakesidenews.com or the Lake Lanier Association, www.lakelanier.org.

Photo: by Vinnie Mendes