The 16,000-ton Giulio Verne — Jules Verne to you — was contracted by the Water and Power Authority through Pirelli High Voltage. Pirelli is an international company, a leader in the undersea cable-laying field, with main offices in Italy. The ship travels worldwide laying cables. On Tuesday, it arrived on St. Thomas, flying the Italian and Virgin Islands flags, from a job in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Colored yellow and blue, coincidentally WAPA's colors, the ship looks like a giant carnival creature come to rest. On Tuesday morning it was dotted with enormous cranes pulling what looked like ballast from one location to another. Miles and miles of black and yellow electric cable lay coiled on the main deck and, up a short set of stairs, another huge coil of miles of bright yellow water line could be seen sunken in a metal enclosure.
The ship, among the largest of the world's cable-laying fleet, is scheduled to complete its work in the territory in four days, according to the ship's engineer, Luca Vigano — spending two days on each line. Vigano offered a brief tour of the inner sanctum of the massive vessel.
The wheelhouse is four decks high, absolutely immaculate and fully automated. The ship is run by computers and a dynamic global positioning system. "We used to have radio operators, but now we have this," Vigano said, pointing to an elaborate computerized system occupying more than one room. He pointed out the "joystick," about 7 inches in length and surrounded by all sorts of buttons and switches, which runs the whole thing.
The ship's movements, even minor ones, are controlled by satellite and the GPS. "We don't drop anchor," Vigano said, "because of the differential positioning system." And, he said, "we can spin 360 degrees with our four propellers."
The top deck is a helipad. "There's no 'copter here now," Vigano said, explaining that it's for one "to be able to land in case of accidents."
A Web site describing the vessel states: "A true concentration of technology, the Giulio Verne is 420 feet (128m) long, 100 feet (30m) wide and draws up to 28 feet (8.5m) with a full cargo. She holds up to 650 tons of fuel, and — thanks to the four 1,275 HP Schottel Azimuthing propellers — the ship can sail at a full cruising speed of 10 knots."
The vessel was to set up shop off Red Hook later Tuesday, where the crew, divers and environmentalists were to take a closer look at the plans for Wednesday's start of the cable-laying project.
The vessel was awash with activity Tuesday morning, with visits from some WAPA personnel, media representatives and independent contractors. Dennis Bryan of Bryan's Electrical Contracting Corp. and Aubain Brown of Fortress Electrical Contracting Corp. were on hand to witness the integrity test of the electric cable.
Gregory Rhymer, WAPA environmental affairs manager, explained the $3.2 million project. Laying the underwater fiber-optic cable from Red Hook to Little St. James will cost about $1.2 million, he said. The small island is privately owned, and the owner will bear the entire cost of the cable, permitting, installation, interconnection and termination, Rhymer said.
At a March hearing of the Senate Planning and Environmental Protection Committee, it became public knowledge that the owner of Little St. James is Jeffrey Epstein. At that meeting, Epstein's attorney, Paul Hoffman, said his client had provided an environmental assessment report prepared by Bioimpact Inc. of St. Croix.
Amy Dempsey of Bioimpact explained then what the installation of electrical cable would entail, showing a video of the areas involved. She said the installation would avoid the coral outcroppings around Cabrita Point, Great St. James, Whelk Rocks and Little St. James and would not harm any existing coral.
The installation, Rhymer said then,"not only will allow WAPA to bring on line a new customer, but makes it possible for it to provide future similar services to other locations outside its usual distribution areas, thereby increasing commerce and its prosperity." Rhymer also said then that the cable would "greatly reduce shipments of fuel" now needed to produce electricity using a generator on the small island.
On Tuesday, Rhymer said that what is to be installed is a three-core copper conductor cable rated at 15 kv that will run parallel to the existing electrical submarine cable line from Red Hook Point to St. John. The 18,000 feet of cable will be routed out to a depth of 100 feet off St. Thomas, he said. On Little St. James, it will connect with an existing inland power system.
And the St. John water line, Rhymer said, also will extend 18,000 feet, from Great Bay on St. Thomas to Frank Bay on St. John, where it will interconnect with existing water lines. It is a "very sensitive" project, Rhymer said, stressing that all considerations have been taken to protect the environment.
On Tuesday night there was to be "a dry run … to make sure the necessary coordinates are in place." And on Wednesday morning, the divers and environmentalists are to monitor the vessel's progress.
Rhymer took the occasion on Tuesday morning to thank Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Dean Plaskett; Sen. Louis Hill, chair of the Planning and Environmental Protection Committee; and the Army Corps. of Engineers for their help in the cable-laying project.
Although the water line to St. John is to be in place by the end of the week, the island is not expected to begin receiving water pumped from St. Thomas until the end of this year. Rhymer said at a September Coastal Zone Management Committee hearing on St. John that WAPA's line running east from the plant in Krum Bay at that time ended at Cassi Hill in Anna's Retreat. He said it would take until the end of 2004 to complete the extension from there to Red Hook on St. Thomas's East End.
In February, WAPA will lay replacement 35 kv electric cable from Cabrita Point on St. Thomas to Frank Bay on St. John. "The Cabrita Point cable is in pretty bad shape now," Glenn Rothgeb, WAPA assistant executive director, said Tuesday afternoon. He said the cable will run along the same route as the one being installed to Little St. James this week.
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