Constellation to leave harbor

April 27, 1994|By Sandy Banisky and Karen Ludwig

Suffering from serious decay, the venerable U.S.F. Constellation will be towed to dry dock this fall for repairs that will cost millions of dollars and could leave its Harborplace berth empty for up to four years.

Navy inspectors uncovered the problems in August, when they crawled over the wooden vessel and discovered rot that could threaten the ship and risk visitors' safety if left untended, according to Navy officials.

"She's weathered pirates, fought the French and British, but she can't fight off the weather," said Len Schmidt, the Constellation's director. "It's a wooden ship, and wood just doesn't last."

Already, the ship's soaring masts have been removed and stored at the direction of the Naval Sea Systems Command in Arlington, Va., which oversees decommissioned ships such as the Constellation.

"I don't want to give the impression there was some impending disaster," said Capt. David W. Thomas of the Naval Sea Systems Command. But "we thought it prudent at this time to bring them down."

The masts and rigging were extensively decayed, according to the August 1993 report by inspectors from the Naval Historical Center Detachment in Boston, which cares for the U.S.S. Constitution, the Constellation's sister ship.

After that inspection, the Constellation Foundation reinforced the masts, a measure that Navy of ficials hoped would hold through the 1994 tourist season, until the ship goes to dry dock.

But the nasty winter "was not kind to her," said William Scott, of the Naval Sea Systems Command. An inspector in February recommended that the masts be removed immediately.

The bowsprit, the spar that projected over water from the Constellation's bow, also has been removed after inspectors declared it to be in "very poor condition."

In addition, the inspectors found the ship's keel bowed, or "hogged," in the language of the naval report. If not repaired, the keel eventually could split and allow water into the ship, said William Kloepfer Jr., public affairs chairman for the U.S.F. Constellation Foundation, which operates and cares for the ship.

The foundation has corrected some critical problems so that tourists can visit the frigate until it leaves for dry dock this fall.

"I would have no problem taking myself or my family aboard it," Captain Thomas said.

The age of the Constellation is disputed by naval authorities, who argue over whether it is a frigate (a slower, heavier vessel) built in 1797 or a corvette (a faster, lightly armed ship) given the same name in 1853.

The price of repairs won't be certain until the ship is pulled from the water for inspection. But Mr. Kloepfer said the work will cost "plural millions."

The foundation must raise private funds for the project.

It's too soon, he added, to estimate how long the ship will be gone from the Inner Harbor, where its masts have marked the skyline.

"Rather quick repairs" would take "a year or two" in dry dock, with the rest of the work done back in the Inner Harbor, he said.

"At the other extreme, it may mean that the entire work would have to be done in dry dock," Mr. Kloepfer said, "and that would mean several years, maybe four years."

Foundation members and Navy officials agree that the Constellation's problems are common to wooden ships. Boston's Constitution is sitting in dry dock for work that may take two years. "This is the story of their lives," Mr. Kloepfer said.

Steel-hulled ships often can be repaired simply by welding a patch over the problem. Wooden ships, however, are composed of timbers that interlock. Often, "the ship literally has to be taken apart," Mr. Scott said. Then it has to be repaired and reassembled, "like a jigsaw puzzle."

The Constellation, which attracted about 165,000 tourists last year, has floated in the Inner Harbor since 1955 and underwent its last major renovation in 1979. The ship was out of the water for 1 1/2 years, then was returned for Harborplace's grand opening in 1980.

Mr. Kloepfer said the foundation doesn't know where the Constellation will go for repairs -- except that the site will be in the Baltimore area.

The foundation must draw up a repair plan and send it to Navy officials for approval. "What you have to keep in mind is that this is normal," Captain Thomas said. "The elements work on these ships and things have to be replaced. . . . We're not panicked about this. We don't see this as the end of the world."

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