Water Follies: Franklin County Sheriff's Office helps find moorings with search-and-rescue robot

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldJuly 24, 2013 

The federal budget cuts known as sequestration threw a monkey wrench into this week's preparations for the Water Follies, but organizers said the course will be ready when hydroplanes hit the water.

The Coast Guard, which usually drops moorings from a cutter into the river for the underwater anchors used to secure official boats, couldn't help this year.

The Franklin County Sheriff's Office stepped up, however, volunteering its search-and-rescue robot Wednesday to help find existing moorings.

Deputy Terry Brown used the robot's sonar to search for the moorings and confirmed the locations with the robot's camera. It was a quick process, taking only an hour to find the first one, but not without its challenges.

"The current is pretty strong, so we're right at our limit," Brown said.

Organizers and volunteers also are working to get Columbia Park ready for the tens of thousands of spectators expected this weekend.

Cranes and docks have been put in place for the pit crews. One hundred canopies, thousands of chairs and countless portable toilets and trash cans have been installed to meet the needs of an estimated crowd of 70,000 people. Dozens of vendors, selling everything from food to merchandise, will set up at the park.

"We're feeling good, it comes together every year," said Follies spokesman Michael Turner.

And while the boats won't be on the water until the end of the week, many are already in town. About six boats were displayed outside Columbia Center Mall on Wednesday evening. Their crews are expected to get into the park today.

Sequestration, which also affected workers at the Hanford site, is preventing any military involvement at Follies this year. The Coast Guard also won't provide a helicopter typically used throughout the weekend. The Air Force won't send F-22 Raptors to participate in the air show.

Follies officials appreciated the Franklin sheriff's help with the moorings, said water operations director Michael Hendricks.

Years ago, before the Coast Guard got involved, searching for the moorings in the river used to take an entire day, Hendricks said.

While the general location of the moorings is known, volunteers had to drop a chain and heavy line between two boats near each one and let the boats drift, hoping they'd catch onto the mooring, Hendricks said. If the chain became snagged, a diver went down to confirm whether it was a mooring or something else before they could move on.

Most of the buoys and anchors used to mark the race course on the river are movable and are already laid out ahead of this weekend, Hendricks said. However, there are three concrete moorings that were used in the past to tie down boats used by judges at either end of the course and at the start and finish line.

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