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Comfort leaves Baltimore for final time

A maritime icon slipped out of Baltimore for the final time Tuesday morning, without speeches or hoopla, brass bands or balloons.

Only a small band of well-wishers waved and took pictures as the Navy's 894-foot hospital ship Comfort left Pier 11 in Canton, its home for more than two decades, on its way to a new permanent berth in Norfolk, Va. The national anthem played on tinny speakers and tugboats slowly eased the Comfort into the harbor and pointed it toward the Key Bridge.

"It's a sad day," said Steve Cartwright, the pier manager, who threw off the gangway line, then walked away with his hands in his pockets and head down. "My dad had this job before me. He was here from Day 1 in 1987. He put the pier together for Comfort."

Despite a spirited defense by members of Maryland's congressional delegation, nothing could be done to reverse the cost-cutting decision made a year ago by top Navy officials.

The ship is steaming to the Atlantic Ocean for three days of sea trials to ensure that all its equipment is running properly before stocking provisions and taking on a 600-member medical team in Norfolk for a four-month humanitarian mission to Central and South America.

"Baltimore was a lot of fun," said Chief Engineer Joe Watts, a 33-year veteran of the Military Sealift Command, which operates the ship. "A lot of friendships were made in Baltimore, especially in the marine industry — the small vendors, the steel shop, the tugboat crews. We'll miss those."

The vendors feel the same way — even the ones from Virginia who made the trip to Baltimore over the years to service the Comfort and now will have the vessel in their backyard.

"Sad? Oh, yeah, that's why I'm here this morning," said Bill Slade of Atlantic Fabrication and Boiler Services of Portsmouth, Va. "The first day I stepped on the deck 20 years ago, I'd never seen anything like it. Comfort and its mission always made me proud and happy. I always treated it with respect."

Built as the oil tanker Rose City in 1976, the vessel was converted to a hospital ship and transferred to the Military Sealift Command in 1987. The Comfort is one of two hospital ships run by the command.

Baltimore beat four other finalists to become Comfort's home port behind tireless lobbying by then-Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who viewed the ship as an economic engine and a symbol of a waterfront revival.

The ship brought 80 civilian and military jobs and generated $11.3 million for the local economy each year in salaries, taxes and purchases, according to Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

The move to Norfolk was strictly financial, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said during a congressional hearing last year.

Sealift Command officials said stationing the Comfort in Norfolk saves the 12 hours it takes to steam down the Chesapeake Bay, time that is crucial when responding to an emergency. The Navy estimates that docking the ship at Norfolk Naval Station will save about $2 million a year in berthing fees.

A memo from the chief of naval operations said the transfer "provides more robust Anti-Terrorism Force Protection, access to military facilities for the 58 military personnel permanently assigned, and reduced housing costs for the Navy."

But not everyone is buying the math.

"You bet it's stuck in my craw," said Bentley, former chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission. "The ship doesn't go out that often — what, once a year? — that the 12 hours matter. And it's costing a lot more than $2 million a year."

Bentley noted that in 2008, the Navy spent $5 million to renovate the Canton pier to ensure that it could be used for another 20 years. She said the Navy received $10 million to renovate the Norfolk berth.

Ruppersberger asked the Navy to conduct a cost analysis to justify the transfer and attempted to block funding for the move in an amendment to the defense budget.

"The Comfort has been a valuable source of pride, jobs and tax dollars for Maryland," Ruppersberger said. "I, along with the rest of the Maryland delegation, fought hard to keep it here in Baltimore, but ultimately the Navy felt this move would be better for their interests and bottom line."

The Comfort was deployed to Kuwait during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-1991 and to the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. The medical team treated victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. In 2011, it took part in a five-month humanitarian mission to Central and South America.

Its next mission, beginning in April, will be to the same region. When the Comfort returns in late August, it will be to a new home.

"We're going to have to find new restaurants, new friends," Watts said. "I can tell you one thing, though. We're not going to be able to replace those crab cakes."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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