How to Start Offshore Dredging in Nome

(Please Note: This guides is from 2009, many things have changed since then, including the price of gold being hundreds of dollars higher and the 2011 lease sale)

A friendly guide to get you started

With all the discussions over the years regarding dredging offshore Nome, I figured I would start an open-source primer for the newbie with hopes and dreams of making it big by dredging in Nome. Hopefully other experienced dredgers will add their thoughts and experiences, to save newbies some of the headaches and heartaches that so many of them go through.

More money has been spent to get gold from offshore Nome, than the value of all the gold that has been gotten from offshore.

In no particular order:

How to prepare to start an offshore dredging operation:

Note: I am amazed by how much people are willing to spend on gold mining, without any experience or research, there are no other undertakings I know of where people will shell out tens (hundreds) of thousands of dollars without doing prudent research. They wouldn’t spend that much to buy a stock or a vehicle, but many eagerly shell it out for a gold mining adventure.

-Talk to people that have done what you hope to do.

-Come and see in person the conditions and environment in which you plan to conduct your operations.

-Learn something about the trade. If you have never cleaned-up ten ounces of gold, but plan on getting hundreds of ounces your first year, then you are being unrealistic.

-Learn something about the location. Where will you be staying/camping, are you sure you are allowed to, is your information current and accurate? Where will you be mining, is there any gold there, are you allowed to, is your information current and accurate? Talk to people that have done so recently.

-Are you planning on dredging on the offshore Nome East Beach Recreational Claim? That area has been hammered by dredges for 15 years. There is almost no gold left. Enough to have a fun vacation, but not enough to pay for your trip, let alone pay for the equipment or make any income.

-Are you planing on dredging on some one else’s lease or claim? Do you know them? Do you already have permission? Are you planning on dredging the open areas? Why are these areas open, are they still open, is there any gold there, does anyone else dredge there?

-Determine what size dredge you want to run. A six inch is the smallest dredge size that makes sense. Smaller than a 6-inch and you are constantly moving rocks. Larger than an 8-inch and you need more permits. Most people run 6-to-8-inch dredges.

-On paper, an 8-inch runs twice the material as a 6-inch, because it is twice the size. But that’s not the case, gold is often in the rocks, and rocks slow down the operation. An 8-inch only moves a little more material than a 6-inch, maybe 20% more.

-On paper an 8-inch dredge moves 30 yards per hour. This is the volume of sand that it could move under ideal conditions. The offshore Nome gold is not found in ideal conditions. The “Golden Sands of Nome” do not have much gold. Gold is found in the rocks and gravel. A physically fit diver can expect to move 3 to 8 yards per hour.

-Offshore Nome, it’s not about the cubic yards per hour, it’s about the square yards. The gold is mostly located in a thin layer on the clay-pan, under the sand/gravel/rocks/etc. So don’t bother with the deep sand, or the the deep rocks.

-Offshore ocean dredging is not like river dredging, other forces move gold, concentrating and diluting it. Sea ice, ocean storms, glaciers, and currents are all factors.

-Offshore ocean dredging is not like river dredging, the current changes velocity and direction, or disappears. You need a good anchoring system and a hydrodynamic dredge, or you will only be able to work in the most optimal conditions.

-Offshore ocean dredging is not like river dredging, winds and weather are big factors. They cause turbidity and rough conditions. Waves will splash on deck, your dredge will get beat up, you will be weathered out for days or weeks at a time. Your dredge and budget needs to be able to take it.

-Offshore ocean dredging is not like river dredging, Norton Sound is salt water. Corrosion is a constant enemy, anything steel will be covered in rust, if it’s in the water or just in the salty air.

-If you plan to make money, you need an APMA and all the permits and licenses for dredging. Sure you may be able to dredge without one, in some areas offshore Nome if your dredge is small enough. But if your dredge is big enough to make a profit, then it is big enough to get the permits.

-Everything will break. You need to know how to fix anything on your dredge and support equipment, and be prepared to do so. This means a welder, a grinder, tool sets, spare parts for engines and electrical, etc.

-You will not make any money your first year, so don’t plan on it. You will be lucky to cover your operating expenses (fuel). Learning to be an offshore dredger by starting your own operation is a very expensive education. Plan the trip as an expensive vacation, doing a hobby.

-Do not be creative or inventive. Plenty of people have invented what they believe to be the be-all-end-all super dredging machine, they spent years and a fortune designing and building it. Then it doesn’t work. You might be smart. But hard work gets more gold than smart. That is a fact. If you have not spent a few hundred hours dredging the old fashioned way (a diver at the end of a suction hose), then you will not be able to come up with a working system to get rid of the diver. I know of several very smart people that have had hundreds of hours of dredging experience and still failed to design a working system that gets around having a diver.

-Look up the research papers and drill log data for the offshore Nome area. Then realize that it’s all mostly worthless. That data is 30+ years old, the ocean has moved the bottom materials, including the gold, for all of that time. The main point, that is still relevant, is that there is gold out there, but not everywhere, and it’s not consistent or uniformly distributed.

Here’s what happens to most people who come up here:

1) They buy the wrong gear.

2) They ship the wrong gear up here, then assemble while the season has started and spend some of the best dredging days working on stuff.

3) They troubleshoot and redesign their dredge for a couple weeks.

4) They go out, most to the Rec area, and dredge worked ground and tailings.

5) Many find out that they are not physically fit enough to dredge.

6) They think they have ten times as much gold as they actually do, because they are inexperience in judging the box/concentrate. Gold is deceptive, a little looks like a lot, when it’s not cleaned up all the way.

7) Stuff breaks, bad weather hits, they run out of money, then they sell everything for ten cents on the dollar, if they are lucky, often less.

8) They leave Nome broke with a great story and an amazing adventure that most people can only dream of. And, for most, it was worth it.

Here is my suggestion:

Take the $100k (a lowball number) that you would have spent designing, building, shipping, constructing, redesigning, fixing, etc. your own operation and give that money to me. I’ll give you back $10k plus let you work on my dredge for two weeks, and let you keep up to four ounces of the gold found. You will come out ahead, learn a lot, and have a great adventure.

Or, if you have $600k, give it to me, and I will design and build a dredge that might get enough gold to break even in three of four years, and you can own 50% of the operation, so long as the operating and repair expenses come out of your half. I’ll take 50% to pay myself and the crew. Or, if it fails, the operation could join the list of failed bright ideas.

(Update 2014: There are ways to make very good money mining offshore Nome in today’s markets, but you need to have the right experience, good ground to work, equipment, and people to work with. I am one of perhaps 20 people that mine professionally offshore Nome as my only source of income, making very good money)