RHODES POINT -- Picture a colossal hot dog, a third of a mile long, being filled with tons of sand and muck sucked from the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay and stretched out along a narrow spit of land.
It may be an unattractive notion, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is hoping that the "hot dog" device will help ward off the Chesapeake Bay's ravenous appetite for land that is eating away at the only natural buffer keeping the tiny Smith Island village of Rhodes Point from slipping into the water.
In an experimental effort to save the watermen's community from possible extinction, the corps is erecting an artificial dike by pumping 125,000 cubic yards of sand into a 2,000-foot-long plastic sleeve called a "geo-textile" tube -- the "hot dog."
The apparatus -- which was developed in Holland, where reclaiming land from the sea is an art form -- costs a fraction of the more conventional methods of controlling erosion.
If it works -- and nothing of its size has ever been tested in the Chesapeake -- it could mean a relatively cheap, easy way to preserve threatened shoreline.
Smith Island, Maryland's only inhabited offshore island, has been eroding under the pressure of wind, waves and tidal currents. Islanders estimate that the bay has swallowed more than 1,200 acres, or 14 percent, of their land in the past century.
Because Rhodes Point is on the island's west end, where land has receded at the rate of 12 feet a year, it is more vulnerable to erosion than its eastside sister villages of Ewell and Tylerton.
When the plastic cylinder, referred to as a "geo-tube," is filled, it TTC is intended to provide a 7-foot-high barrier along Hog Neck Peninsula, a low-lying strip of sand which is all that separates the village of about 85 people from the open bay. Dredge material will be placed behind the dike to widen the peninsula and, as early as next spring, marsh grass will be planted to help stabilize the soil.
The project began in mid-September and is scheduled to be finished by the end of this month, just in time for the cold-weather storm season.
"We're all pleased with the plans, if they can just carry them out," said island community leader Jennings Evans. "It's going to be its greatest test, this first winter."
For Rhodes Point residents such as Edward and Maxine Landon, winter storms have meant looking through spray-covered windows to see their lawn flooded with salt water. Hog Neck Peninsula is so low that wind-driven waves routinely breach the narrow spit.
"We're all for this project," said Mr. Landon. "There'll be a lot of land out there when they're done. It'll be a good protection."
Mr. Evans, who lives in Ewell but has roots in Rhodes Point, said islanders have been trying for 40 years to get government help in stopping erosion. Cost estimates of protecting the shore with rock breakwaters exceeded $1 million, almost more than the assessed value of the entire village.
Islanders argued that because of its historic value, the marshy area deserved to be protected, as well as the property. English settlers and their descendants raised crops and cattle on Hog Neck.
The area is rich in Indian artifacts, and some islanders walking the beach have found coins dating to the 1700s. Legend has it that before the Methodist church gained a foothold on Smith Island, Rhodes Point was called "Rogues Point" because it was a favorite hideout for Chesapeake Bay pirates.
Mr. Evans credited Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, the 1st District's Republican congressman, for getting talks started. Mr. Gilchrest toured the fragile Hog Neck Peninsula by boat last summer and later met with local, state and federal officials to seek a solution.
Army Corps of Engineers officials decided to experiment with the "geo-tube", an erosion control method used successfully in the Netherlands and in some parts of the United States, including the Chesapeake Bay. The distinction of the Rhodes Point "geo-tube" is its size -- about one-third of a mile long and 45 feet in circumference. Several 100-foot tubes were set as breakwaters off Eastern Neck Island in Kent County this past year, but nothing the size of the Rhodes Point project had ever been attempted.
"This is a new effort," said corps project manager Steven D. Garbarino. "We have never done this in the bay." Mr. Garbarino said the corps found the tube method appealing because it could be installed quickly, would not hurt the environment and should last up to 20 years -- perhaps long enough for the protected backfill material to stabilize itself with vegetation.
And the cost of the tube project -- $233,575 -- is far less than the corps would spend if it installed a conventional rock dike.
Corps officials already are planning to use similar tubes to stem erosion near the mouth of the Pocomoke River and on Barren Island off Dorchester County.
"I see a lot of utility in this use," said Mr. Garbarino. "But first we have to get hold of this project."
The Rhodes Point operation has suffered several setbacks, although apparently not enough to throw it far off schedule: A storm this month sank a dredge boat in the shallow waters off Hog Neck Peninsula, and workers trying to master the logistics of forcing sand into the huge tube had to find a 370-horsepower hydraulic pump with which to replace a weaker one.
Although the tube was constructed as a continuous device, its interior is divided into 25-foot-long compartments. Dredged material is pumped through hatches into each section.
"It's an experimental project," said Richard Jackson, a manager with the Illinois-based Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Co. Inc. that has the contract for the job. "There's a steep learning curve for everybody involved." Mr. Jackson, who has worked on major dredging operations in New Jersey and Maryland, said he has never seen anything quite like the Rhodes Point project.
"This is one that belongs in the Guinness world book of records," he said.