Hi-tech in the tidal zone

Originally published March 6, 2013 in Capital Times. 

On a recent Friday afternoon I donned the filthiest life jacket I’ve ever seen, stepped aboard a flat steel punt dusty with concrete, and went to a place few ever go – the cool, dark underworld beneath Queens Wharf.

Here, the water glows an eerie nuclear green and the sounds of constant foot traffic, swooping helicopters, and the Shed 5 lunch crowd seem a million miles away. It’s high tide and Derek Kleinjan and I duck our heads around ancient copper sewer pipes and enormous 100-year-old beams to see what he and his five-man crew have been up to for the past 18 months.

Kleinjan is foreman for GK Shaw, a Lower Hutt firm that builds marine infrastructure around the world, and they’re systematically reinforcing the rotted beams and piles of the aging wharf. About 270 new greenheart beams, each weighing half a ton, were floated one at a time and lifted overhead into place with jacks specially designed by Shaw (and hidden in storage from the eyes of competitors.)

More than 280 new concrete piles have been poured, with the assistance of two divers, and wrapped with sheets of Kevlar, which add strength and stability to the structure. They resemble the hi-tech carbon fibre sails seen on racing boats, and are a new method for this kind of large scale renovation.  Already, barnacles, muscles, and starfish are clinging to the Kevlar and the internal carbon fibres lend an ethereal light.

Kleinjan’s been down here off and on over the years – as have his two sons, who work for him occasionally. Twenty years ago he was part of the crew that replaced piles under Shed 5, which he shows me while diners stare down at us from the restaurant’s deck.

These piles are thicker and were poured around an internal metal frame, which isn’t required with the new Kevlar method.
“The trickier the better sometimes because it really makes you think,” says the foreman, who describes areas where the wooden beams, weighing half a ton apiece, had to be lifted overhead, delicately threaded between pipes and electrical cords.

Kleinjan and crew will be finished by June, when they’ll move on to repair the fendering on Taranaki Wharf. He tells me he loves the complexity and challenges of the work, even though it’s something he can’t really show off. “If you sucked all the water out of the sea nobody’d want to walk on a wharf,” he says as we glide back out into the light of day.




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