The ship is one of those quiet, unassuming pioneers bound to live out their old age in obscurity despite youthful accomplishments that left the world forever changed.
Tied up at Dundalk Marine Terminal and disgorging a steady stream of Army vehicles returning from the Persian Gulf, the USN Comet looked to the casual observer like just another pale gray military cargo ship. The only clue to her special status in the history of the maritime industry was stenciled in unobtrusive black letters under the wings of the ship's bridge: "THE MOTHER OF ALL RO/RO's."
Launched 32 years ago at Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. in Chester, Pa., the Comet was the first of her kind: an oceangoing cargo vessel designed to carry vehicles that could be driven directly aboard over ramps. Known as ro/ro ships because the cargo can be rolled on and rolled off, such vessels are commonly used by commercial shipping lines to move all sorts of general cargo.
Virtually all the imported cars in this country were carried here aboard ro/ro ships. Huge ro/ro's carry thousands of cars that can be unloaded in just a few hours. That's one of the reasons why the Japanese can build cars thousands of miles away and still sell them in this country for less than the price of domestically built cars.
That's an accomplishment many people in this country might deplore.But these same ships also carry much of the heavy construction equipment, boats and other manufactured goods that this country sells abroad.
The Comet, however, was not envisioned to carry pleasure boats. It was designed and built by the military to move large amounts of combat gear to places that might not have the cranes and other sophisticated port facilities needed to unload conventional cargo ships.
All the Comet needs is a level pier to back up to. Then it can lower its stern ramp and begin rapidly disgorging vehicles.
If there was any doubt about the military significance of this kind of ship, the Persian Gulf war resolved it. Ro/ro ships carried the bulk of the combat gear to the allied forces. The Comet has made five round trips to the gulf.
She was in Baltimore this week bringing back a load of vehicles, some painted in green camouflage patterns, others painted a sandy color, but all of them bearing the inverted V that allied forces used to distinguish their equipment from the Iraqi material.
The Comet, part of the Ready Reserve Force maintained by the U.S. Maritime Administration for rapid deployment in the event of an emergency, was laid up in the Columbia River near Portland, Ore., when the call came in August.
Even though it had spent the previous four years without going to sea and despite its age, the Comet performed well and has sailed the equivalent of three trips around the world since last August without any major problems in either of its two engines.
"Mechanically, it's been one of the most reliable in the fleet," said Capt. William Mahoney during a tour of the ship Wednesday. He attributes the performance to the qualities of the crew as much as the ship.
The ship itself is still a marvel after three decades of service. In simplest terms the ship is a floating parking lot. It has ramps
connecting its three interior decks and a topside "weather deck." These ramps can be raised hydraulically out of the way so all of the space can be used for cargo.
Other ships had been converted to ro/ro uses before the Comet was built, but it was the first one, aside from ferry boats, designed from the keel up to carry vehicles.
Not just any vehicles. Captain Mahoney noted that only heavy-duty equipment such as tanks or other military equipment would be able to ascend the stern ramp. "She was designed for rugged military vehicles. You wouldn't want to drive a Toyota up here. Coming up here you'd probably lose part of the oil pan."
As the crisis in the Persian Gulf worsened, the government recognized the key role ro/ro ships would be called on to play. The government also quickly realized there were not enough U.S.-flag ro/ro ships to do the job. So the Navy's Military Sealift Command was forced to go out and charter foreign-flag vessels.
Recognizing the future implications of the shortage of ro/ros, the military now wants to acquire as many as 45 ships of the type pioneered by the Comet. The government is still debating whether to buy the ships abroad or to convert existing ships to ro/ros in U.S. shipyards.
Whichever approach is taken, Captain Mahoney hopes the Comet and other ships like her will not be be laid up again for years on end awaiting the next crisis.
He thinks that one crew should be rotated among, say, five ships. Those ships would be kept ready for duty and taken out on voyages periodically. "I don't believe a ship wants to sit. I don't think they like it," he said.