Navy ship restorers begin cost study aboard Constellation


A team of Navy ship restorers from Boston's 1797 frigate Constitution boarded Baltimore's sloop-of-war Constellation yesterday and began up to three weeks of inspections and stabilization work.

The riggers, carpenters, planners and estimators will be joined at the Inner Harbor next week by divers from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, who will inspect under water.

The inspectors will report to Congress on the "feasibility and cost-effectiveness" of several repair options for the rotting 1853 warship.

Charles Deans, director of the Naval Historical Center Detachment, Boston, said his team will create videotape and written documentation of virtually every square inch of the ship for comparisons with a less extensive 1993 inspection, and to establish baseline data for future work.

Inspectors will probe the ship with ice picks to gauge the rot, take at least 50 borings and send the wood samples for testing.

"If we feel we need more, we'll take more. . . . We need to convince ourselves that what we're doing is accurate," Mr. Deans said. Portions of the ship's ballast will be moved to allow inspection of the lowest portions of the interior.

A preliminary report will be issued in four to six weeks. The final version will take several months.

Next week, steel and nylon cables will be installed to protect the weakening ship from further sagging, which might open a seam and cause it to sink. Laser devices will be installed to detect any new distortion.

None of the $265,000 budgeted by the Navy for the work -- from $900,000 appropriated by Congress -- will be spent on actual repairs or to move the ship to dry dock. That has disappointed the cash-starved Constellation Foundation, which needs $9 million to fix the ship.

"It was our impression . . . that that money would essentially be used to do a survey in dry dock, which would give the foundation a leg up on the [repair] process," said Louis F. Linden, the foundation's director.

"The new board of directors was quite disappointed when the Navy's interpretation turned out to be different," he said. Nevertheless, "we are working together to get the best result and the most benefit we can." The Navy decided that a pier-side inspection, and installation of mechanical supports to keep the ship from falling apart at the dock, were the cheapest ways to respond to Congress and buy time for the ship.

"It was our judgment that a comprehensive inspection could be completed [at the pier] in a cost-efficient way and with the least damage to the ship," said Capt. Gordon I. Peterson, director of congressional and public affairs at the Naval Sea Systems Command. "The inspection we will conduct will give us 90 percent of [what could be learned from] an inspection in dry dock," he said.

Captain Peterson declined to discuss what would become of the rest of the $900,000 authorized by Congress for the ship, or whether the Navy report might lead to further federal participation in the ship's rescue.

The Constellation has been in Baltimore since 1954. The foundation holds title under the Navy's Ship Donation Program, but the Navy can reclaim the vessel if it is not being cared for properly.

A one-week inspection by three Navy experts in August 1993 revealed serious deterioration. Emergency shoring was installed, and last spring the ship's masts and rigging were removed for safety reasons. The foundation later ran out of money and the attraction was closed.

The foundation is lobbying the General Assembly to provide more than the $600,000 recommended last week by Gov. Parris N. Glendening. The city's delegation has asked for $3 million to get the ship to dry dock and begin repairs.

The Baltimore City Council pledged to add $3 million more late in 1996 if voters approve a bond issue next fall. The remaining $3 million would be raised from foundations and corporate and private donors.

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