by A.J. Martignette, SCCF Marine Laboratory Manager
The River, Estuary, and Coastal Observation Network (RECON) was established by Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation in 2007 to enhance the monitoring of water quality in the Caloosahatchee River and the surrounding estuary. RECON currently consists of seven water-quality sites and one offshore wave buoy. In 2012, three RECON sites were upgraded and equipped with weather stations. These stations were funded through Lee County by a grant from the West Coast Inland Navigation District.
They were the first local weather stations located directly on the water and were designed to give boaters accurate, near real-time, information on weather conditions.
Most of the RECON stations are set up on U.S. Coast Guard channel markers with permits issued by the USCG for them. The use of channel markers provides SCCF with several advantages, such as significant cost savings over installing new pilings, and ease of obtaining a permit. They do, however, have one big disadvantage: Because they are navigational aids, vessels are constantly maneuvering in close proximity to them. Incidental collisions between passing vessels have happened on several occasions. The majority of these collisions result in significant damage or destruction to the channel marker, although most of the time, the RECON sensors have survived. Unfortunately, this was not the case at the Gulf of Mexico site early last year.
On the afternoon of Feb. 19, 2020, the channel marker was struck by a boat. The steel piling was pushed over 15 to 20 degrees and the piling cap was dislodged and knocked into the water. The piling cap is the structure on the top of the piling that holds the channel marker day boards and navigation light. It is also where the RECON solar panel, power system, modem, and weather station are located. These components were all destroyed during the February incident.
The USCG attempted, without success, to right the piling in April. Weather and COVID-19 delays prevented them from returning until August, when they determined it needed to be replaced. The new piling cap has a different style. The other two RECON weather stations are attached to wooden pilings, allowing us to easily attach the components. The steel piling and piling cap required us to engineer a new way of attaching everything. Luckily, the USCG shared a detailed schematic of the new piling cap with extra holes for bolting parts into it.
Working from the schematic, a 3-D computer-aided design model of the piling and a custom structure that can be bolted to hold the weather station and topside RECON components was designed. In addition, a tree stand, like those used for hunting, was modified and attached to the piling ladder to serve as a work platform for the installation.
On Jan. 22, the new topside RECON structure and weather station components were attached to the piling. Installation took around four hours and went according to the plan. The modified tree stand, coupled with a climbing safety harness, made the otherwise-tricky installation relatively straightforward.
Near real-time weather data from the Gulf of Mexico RECON station is available again at recon.sccf.org. The water quality component of this station will remain offline until the return of the sensors from the manufacturer for their yearly maintenance.