Constellation to get risky ride to repairs


Planning is under way for one of the shortest, slowest and most delicate voyages ever launched from Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Sometime in the next few months, if the U.S. Navy approves the trip, the proud but leaky sloop-of-war Constellation will be pulled from its Harborplace slip and nudged gently down the harbor to a dry dock two miles away at Fort McHenry.

The man responsible for seeing that the 141-year-old warship doesn't sink along the way is Peter Boudreau, builder of the Pride of Baltimore II and architect of the Constellation's proposed rehabilitation.

"Do I think there's a risk [of sinking]? I'd have to say I think there is some risk," he said. "But our job is to identify that risk and find out how it is handled."

Among the precautions outlined in plans to be submitted to the Navy:

* High capacity pumps on board.

* A team of scuba divers poised to plug new or worsening leaks.

* Carefully choreographed movements by the tugboats so that they don't direct their prop wash toward the ship. Dockside experience has shown that the turbulence would accelerate the Constellation's leaking.

* Closure of sections of the Patapsco's Northwest Branch during the move to keep the harbor free of unnecessary wakes.

* An early morning departure on a calm day to minimize wind and waves.

"The ideal scenario is to move her so slowly and carefully .. . .that the ship will not experience much different conditions than it experienced every day in the Inner Harbor," said Mr. Boudreau.

The Constellation has not left the Inner Harbor since 1981, when it received new hull planking at Bethlehem Steel's former Key Highway shipyard. It was last in dry dock in 1980, when it underwent hull repairs by Bethlehem Steel at its Fort McHenry Shipyard.

A Navy inspection in 1993 found the ship seriously deteriorated by time and the elements. Without millions of dollars in repairs, the ship was likely to be reclaimed by the Navy. Its masts and rigging were removed in March as a safety precaution, and a blue-ribbon committee was named in May to plan and finance its rescue.

When moving day arrives, Mr. Boudreau said, he will need perhaps two hours to undock the ship, four hours in transit, and another hour to dock it at the shipyard.

Tugs will have to maneuver the ship from its dock without directing their propellers toward its hull. Then the bow would be turned toward the harbor entrance.

"From that point we want to put the tugs on the hip [pushing on the hull]. One tug will actually push her, while the other becomes a standby," he said. "If you're towing from ahead, the tug wash goes directly over the hull, and it's considerable. Pushing, the tug wash is clear of the ship."

The tugs will have to move as slowly as their engines will allow to minimize the water flow past the hull.

En route, Mr. Boudreau said, crew members in the hold will watch for leaks, ready to signal scuba divers riding alongside in a rubber boat.

Brass numbers tacked to the outside of the hull correspond to specific ribs on the inside. "So if somebody inside says there's a leak at frame 46, two planks below the waterline, somebody on the outside can put their hand right on it," he said.

The divers would jump in the water and stuff sawdust or a tarred yarn called oakum into the leaking seam and hope it stems the flow.

Catastrophic leaks could be stanched with cofferdams -- watertight boxes attached to the hull at the site of the leak.

Pumps will be ready to remove the water that intrudes. "I would like to say there will be more than I could need, but I don't think that's possible," Mr. Boudreau said.

The ship's destination would be the Fort McHenry Shipyard Inc., just north of the Fort McHenry National Monument. Formerly a Bethlehem Steel facility, the yard is now owned by Richard A. Swirnow. He is the developer of the Harborview condominiums on Key Highway.

Gail Shawe, who heads the mayor's Constellation committee, said the dry dock needs some work to assure it is "safe and functioning."

"Mr. Swirnow is on the committee and he's the first to say we want to work this out," Ms. Shawe said. "It is our intent that [Fort McHenry] is where she goes."

"I don't think there are a lot of options," she said. "We couldn't afford a commercial shipyard and we don't want to take her out of Baltimore." The Constellation might not survive a move elsewhere.

The Fort McHenry yard isn't perfect, Mr. Boudreau said. "The dock is old . . . and some of it doesn't function. But for our purposes the pumps work, the gates work, the valves work and there is electricity and actually a fairly good work area."

Mr. Boudreau used the same dry dock in 1991-1992 for repairs to the Philadelphia-based Gazela, a 177-foot wooden square rigger built in Portugal in 1883.

Nothing about the move has been made final. Mr. Boudreau is awaiting a Navy response to his plans for stabilizing and restoring the badly deteriorated Constellation. The Navy must also review his plans for moving and docking it.

But he is eager to begin. "I need as much lead time as I can get," he said. "If we have the ability to proceed soon, in the next few months, we will."

The Constellation is still awaiting release of a $1 million appropriation passed last month by Congress to cover the move and dry-docking, Mr. Boudreau said.

The money must be shared with the World War II aircraft carrier Intrepid, now a floating museum in New York City. But the carrier reportedly needs less than $90,000, according to Ms. Shawe.

Once the ship is safely moored at the shipyard, Mr. Boudreau said, it would be prepared for dry-docking, and the water would be pumped from the dock. The ship would then settle onto supports carefully designed for the straightening of a 26-inch upward bend or "hog" that has developed in its weakened keel.

That's done by gradually releasing sand from inside metal boxes, called sand blocks, on which the ship's keel will rest. As the sand is removed, the boxes collapse and let gravity slowly lower the center of the keel until it is flat.

"The entire process of letting her down would take months," he said. Meanwhile, work crews would remove hull planking and survey the ship's frames and keel for damage.

The repairs and restoration proposed by Mr. Boudreau would require 18 months and an estimated $7 million to $10 million -- money yet to be raised.

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