The fishing pier is an iconic symbol of our way of life on the Gulf coast. It is the focal point of our fishing camps, and the family gathering place to reel in those seasonal Reds and Specs. Unfortunately, our waterways are littered with the skeletal remains of fishing piers that did not survive the many storms we encounter. An improperly built pier can suffer damage from our frequent thunderstorms, and seasonal tropical storms. Hurricanes, well we all know about those. High winds and high waves are a way of life that we deal with and often our fishing piers are the casualties.
For most families, a pier is a big investment and the centerpiece of the fishing camp. To protect that investment against high water and wave action, wooden piers were built high, supposedly above the potential wave heights. You’ve seen them all up and down the coast, wooden piers 15ft high over the water with stairs at the end. The stairs go down to a low platform that makes fishing possible. These piers are made of timber piles with wood decking and cross ties to support the long piles. Even though the typical water depth is only 6ft, the height of the pier is necessary to keep it out of the wave zone. Storm after storm would damage or blow away those piers and they would be rebuilt higher and higher. Hurricane Katrina showed us the futility of building higher piers.
High or Low Piers
To withstand a hurricane, you must think differently about pier construction. Is building a high pier the best way to protect the pier? The higher the pier is above the mudline, the less stable it is and the more susceptible to damage from floating debris. Low piers have many advantages:
• No stairs are necessary to get to fishing level.
• You can use the entire length of the pier to fish or use crab traps.
• They are submerged quickly, so the debris floats over the top.
• More stable and do not require handrails because they are close to the water.
However, the downside of building a low pier is that waves will be knocking some of the decking off the pier every time there is a high wind. This leads to another problem, people get tired of replacing boards and start screwing them down, big mistake. If the boards are just nailed down, the waves will work a few boards lose and carry them away. If you screw down all the decking you have basically made the whole pier one solid unit, and the next big storm will remove the whole pier. In both cases, problem is that the wooden decking creates too much resistance to the upward force the wave generates, you need another solution.
New Materials, New Methods
To solve the problem of resistance to the waves upward pressure, we need to consider a few different decking materials. Steel grating has been around for decades. It solves the resistance problems, but it hurts your feet and does not last long in salt water environment.
The better solution is fiberglass grating. This material has been around for a while, used mostly on offshore oil rigs. This product has come down in price in recent years and is now seeing wide adoption in residential pier construction. Its open grid design allows water to flow up through the spaces and creates very little resistance. The advantages that Fiberglass grate has over all other products are:
• As much as 60% open space, less pressure from waves.
• Acceptable for wetlands installation, less environmental impact
• It is ridged and structural, unlike wood decking
• It can span larger distances between supports
• Does not flex, and adds stability.
• It does not rot, corrode, or deteriorate in the sun.
• Expected life span of 50 years.
If you try to resist nature too much, nature wins every time. With fiberglass grating, we are not resisting nature but flowing with it.
The next thing to consider is how the grating is attached to the pier. This stuff is heavy, Fiberglass grate is at least one inch thick and comes in 12ft by 4ft sheets, you need some heavy-duty fasteners. Typically, this grating is fastened to the pier with a lag bolt down through the grate holes into the joist or stringers below. Wood piers use 2x6 lumber for decking and joist. That will not work for fiberglass, 2x6 joist are just not thick enough to hold a 3/8” lag bolt and washer. The lag bolts also need to penetrate the wood at least 3 inches to create a good hold. Remember the fiberglass grate does still create some resistance to water surges, we still need to hold it down well. Upgrading the joists from a 2x6 to a 4x6 gives us a meaty timber to lag into and a ton of holding power. We can also space the joist farther apart because we are using structural fiberglass grate. The 4x6 also gives us the option of upgrading the hardware and support members that connect the pier to the piles. By doing so we seriously upgrade the strength, rigidity, and longevity of the pier.
The first low fiberglass pier was installed before Katrina. The owner worked on oil platforms and saw how the material held up, so he decided fiberglass grate was the way to go. His pier was the only pier in the area left standing after Hurricane Katrina and it is still there.
We live in a time where new materials and building methods allow us to build a hurricane resistant pier. Obviously, the pier cannot be completely hurricane proof, there are still so many unpredictable things that can happen. If your neighbor’s yacht breaks free in a hurricane and smashes into your pier, some damage will occur. However, if you build it as described above, there will be a lot less damage to fix.
The final thought is to make sure that your contractor is a licensed professional marine contractor. The fiberglass pier is not a DIY project. This is a complicated system and materials are unforgiving. Every fiberglass panel is laser straight on the edge, so if the piles, joists, or anything is slightly off, it will stick out like a sore thumb. If done right, this pier should last for at least 50 years, come hurricane or high water.