From High Seas to Dire Straits Constellation backers seek way to save ship CONSTELLATION: HIGH SEAS TO DIRE STRAITS

September 25, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

When its timbers were new and its sails were filled, the sloop-of-war Constellation chased down slave ships off the coast of Africa. It blockaded Confederate ports and raced food relief to starving Ireland.

It was the last and best of the Navy's all-sail fighting ships.

Today, the Inner Harbor's 141-year-old centerpiece is so weakened by time and the elements that it has been stripped of its rigging to keep it from falling on tourists. Its timbers are turning to mush.

Facing its most desperate crisis since arriving in Baltimore in 1955, the Constellation needs $25 million or more in restoration work, but its caretakers are broke.

Would-be rescuers led by former Pride of Baltimore Director Gail Shawe say they have an inventive, $7 million-$10 million plan to save the ship. But it must win the approval of skeptical Navy experts, who began reviewing it last week.

If the plan is rejected and Baltimore finds no other solution, the Navy is poised to take the ship back. Under terms of its 1955

donation contract, the Constellation must not become a "discredit" to its past or a menace to safety or navigation.

The Navy would find it a new home, or a quiet backwater where it can await its fate. Authorities have already secured a resting place at the Coast Guard yard in Curtis Bay.

"Picture Harborplace without her," said Thomas J. Murphy III, 41, a board member of the private, nonprofit U.S.F. Constellation Foundation. "If all of a sudden she was gone, we would hear recriminations up Light Street and Pratt and down the other side."

How has it come to this?

To find out, The Sun has examined financial records and interviewed past and present members of the ship's board, its accountant, former management consultant and construction superintendent, and experts in historic ship preservation.

Among the findings:

* The Constellation is in desperate need of a major overhaul. It has survived 39 years in Baltimore on piecemeal repairs floated on a trickle of donations. Experts say an overhaul could exceed $25 million and replace 70 percent of its wood.

* No one familiar with the problem believes the ship's reconstruction could attract anything approaching $25 million in donations.

* The foundation's treasurer, John H. Ensor, was warned a decade ago by Herbert Atwell, then construction superintendent, that his repairs were not enough. "He confided in me that, 'In 10 years you're not going to be able to maintain this ship. You're going to have to give it to the state,' " Mr. Ensor said. "And I believed it."

* Despite the warning, the Constellation Foundation lacked the skills and money to respond. Its board has drained nearly $900,000 from the ship's reserves since 1988 to pay its bills. As of June 30, the reserves consisted of less than $11,000 and two paintings. The Constellation's maintenance crew has dwindled to a single carpenter.

* The ship has operated in the red for five of the past seven `` years. Tourists, its chief source of revenue, are passing the relic by. Half as many go aboard these days as visited just a year ago.

* The Navy demanded little of those to whom it entrusted the ship in 1955, and didn't inspect it again thoroughly until 1993.

Ms. Shawe, the former director of the Pride of Baltimore Inc., heads a 13-member committee of civic and corporate leaders named in May by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to help the foundation save the ship. They have a plan and they are committed, she said, but they are also "realistic" about their chances.

"Of course I have doubts," Ms. Shawe said. "It's a lot of money and it's complicated. This isn't the little Pride of Baltimore."

"The costs are immense," said Charlie M. Deans, 53, director of the Naval Historical Center Detachment Boston. But so are the stakes.

"In my opinion there are only two important historical naval vessels," he said. One is the Constitution, a 1797 frigate now undergoing repairs in a Boston dry dock; the other is the Constellation. "To lose either one of them would be a sin."

Sleeker sloop-of-war

Most naval historians now agree that the ship moored in Baltimore is not the frigate Constellation built at Fells Point and launched in 1797. In a 1991 report, naval historian Dana Wegner argued convincingly that the 1797 ship was scrapped in Portsmouth, Va., in 1853 and replaced by the sleeker sloop-of-war. He also cast doubt on assertions that wood from the old ship was used in the new.

The Constellation Foundation has accepted Mr. Wegner's conclusions and plans to restore the ship as a sloop-of-war.

In an inspection report last year, the Naval Sea Systems Command alarmed the ship's board with a 22-page inventory of dangerously decayed rigging, open seams, water intrusion, severe decay and loss of structural integrity from keel to gun deck. Temporary shoring has been installed throughout the ship.

A key threat is a 23- to 26-inch "hog" -- a clearly visible upward bend at the ship's center as the keel and other structures weaken.

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