A camel whose days are numbered.
A camel in repose by the shores of Greenwich Bay

And what is a Camel?

Sometime when the Navy had a far bigger presence in RI than it does now, it built hundreds of heavy oblong iron-bound wooden boxes called ‘camels’.  They float mostly submerged, with only the heavy steel lifting rings showing above the surface of the water.  No one seems to know precisely what they were for: some think they were floats for the anti-submarine net; others say they were used as fenders between rafted-up ships.

But whatever their purpose, they were very well constructed.  The timbers are 12X12” yellow pine, well impregnated with creosote, and held together by heavy steel strapping joined by ¾” steel rods most places, and 2” thick rods at the corners and amidships.

Over the years, Clean the Bay has removed over 100 of these camels from the shores of Narragansett Bay.  Some were refloated and towed to the Navy base for disposal; others had to be cut up small and placed in a dumpster.

Capt. Ben meets a Camel

Captain Ben gives the camel some rage with the gas-powered abrasive cutter: the Round Rager!
Crewmember Dylan enjoys a brief interlude of cutting in between having to sharpen the saw chain.

I had been working for Clean the Bay for a year before the first camel came across my radar: an especially splintery, rusty, tarry specimen that the high tide brought to the shore of Barrington just south of Bullock’s Cove.  It was in an awkward place in that when the tide was high enough to get the workboat to it, it was mostly underwater.  When it was high and dry, the boat couldn’t even get close.

After some delay in getting permission to place a dumpster on the shore nearby, we were ready to attack the beast.  We approached by car with chainsaws, cutters, handspikes and hammers.  It seems an easy thing: walk up and start cutting.  But where to cut is the huge conundrum.  There’s no getting at the wood until the steel strapping’s gone, but the strapping is secured by so many bolts, it’s impossible to get it off.  We began at last by cutting slots in the strapping between the bolt heads to allow a chainsaw through.  Not that that meant much: once the saw had cut as far as it would go, the steel bolts still held everything together!

A high-tide mission by boat to pry and cut.

We were forced in the end to split some of the wood away with wedges and a sledge in order to access the steel bolts with the abrasive cutter—the “Round Rager.”  After several days of work, we finally gained access into one side.  It was a minor triumph, but short-lived once we realized that the rest of it was only going to be harder.

First breach! A minor but satisfactory triumph.

Creosote is Not a Good Lubricant

Perhaps the biggest danger and annoyance of camel removal is the creosote it’s soaked in.  As the chainsaw cuts through impregnated timber, the oil aerosolizes and lands mostly on the hapless chainsaw operator.  Any exposed skin soon begins to burn and sting, getting essentially sauteed by the sun.  After our first experience of “Creosote Burn,” we began to cover up a lot more diligently.  But the fun doesn’t stop there.  I had noticed before, sawing up timbers on the shoreline, that the creosoted ones were hardest on the chainsaws—it smokes as you cut it, and stinks; it blunts the chains, and worst of all makes the saws run really hot.  During the first days of the project, my crew spent as much time filing the saw chains as cutting!

Cutting off nuts. What a lot of work!

Over the Hump?

There came a day when there was absolutely no place else to put a chainsaw—and a good thing, too, since our final remaining one wouldn’t start.  But still that good ol’ American-made, built-to-last, mil-spec camel held together.  There was nothing for it but a new tactic.  If there was no more room to cut the steel bar stock between bolts, perhaps I could cut the bolts themselves.  Putting a fresh abrasive disc in the Round Rager, I tried cutting straight down into one of the nuts on the rod ends.  Once the nut had been cut in half, I found I could hammer the two halves off the rod pretty easily.  Then the pieces of strapping, still a half-inch thick after more than six decades of rust, lifted off, allowing access to the wood underneath.

It was still backbreaking work, levering off one chunk at a time, usually having to start it with wedges and hammers, and cutting off the rod ends after each course, but it was progress.  And so it went, a few nibbles at a time between tides, alternating between chainsaw, Round Rager, and sledgehammer until at long last the dumpster was full and the only trace left of the camel was a rectangular patch where sea grass hadn’t grown.

I can honestly say that removing that camel was the hardest thing I’ve ever done—it was a struggle first to last—from the moment I began cutting strapping to the last piece of 2-inch steel rod I staggered up to the dumpster with, not one minute of it had been easy.  But it’s gone, and knowing what I do now, the next one will go quicker, if not easier.  And unless my count is off, there’s only eleven more to go!