Constellation undergoes inspection by Navy divers

March 28, 1995|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

Diver Bruce Preston was poking around yesterday in Baltimore's murky Inner Harbor with a knife and a video camera, inspecting the 142-year-old keel of the sloop-of-war Constellation.

"This has got some real bad areas," said Mr. Preston, after climbing out of the 50-degree water.

The keel was built in sections, and "it looks like it's separating. Plus, the edges are rotting right off of it," he said.

Mr. Preston, 35, from Lyman, Maine, has been diving for the Navy since 1986. He is more at home beneath the steel hulls of nuclear submarines at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, in Kittery, Maine.

But this week he is working beneath the wooden hull of the last all-sail warship built for the Navy. The Constellation is undergoing a $265,000 federally sponsored inspection and stabilization designed to gather data and hold the ship together while decisions are made about its future.

The Constellation Foundation hopes to raise at least $9 million for dry-docking and repairs. The city has pledged $3 million if voters approve a proposed bond issue. The state General Assembly is considering a request for another $3 million, but Gov. Parris N. Glendening has recommended just $600,000.

Another $3 million would be raised privately.

Foundation Chairman Gail Shawe watched the divers briefly yesterday. Grateful to see something being done for the ship, she would prefer actual repairs.

"It is certainly better than seeing her dormant," she said. "I suspect the [inspection] report is going to reconfirm what we believe is the condition of the ship. Hopefully it won't be any worse. I'll be a lot more excited when we see her moved" to dry dock.

Inspections of the ship's interior by a team from the Naval Historical Center Detachment Boston began last week. The eight-man, civilian dive team from the Portsmouth shipyard joined the project yesterday, led by Lt. Commander Fred Bahrke. They're here for the week.

Peter Boudreau, builder of the Pride of Baltimore II and a consultant to the Constellation Foundation, said the keel damage described by Mr. Preston is not unexpected.

The keel scarfs -- places where the sections were joined -- require shipbuilders to make cuts that expose the ends of the wood grain. "The ends of pieces of wood go [rot] first, so the ends of the scarfs obviously are suspect," Mr. Boudreau said.

On the other hand, he said, the Constellation has a 6-inch-thick "worm shoe" -- a strip of wood running along the bottom of the keel to protect it from marine worms and other damage.

"The worm shoe is considered sacrificial. So theoretically, if he has a 6-inch knife and it goes up through this wormshoe, it doesn't mean the keel is necessarily shot," Mr. Boudreau said.

The keel "is something we would like to keep, because it's probably the oldest part of the ship," he said. Its fate won't be known unless the ship is dry-docked and inspected more thoroughly.

Mr. Preston's video tour of the ship's bottom was monitored in color from a console in the back of a Navy tractor-trailer parked on the dock.

The red-painted hull was covered by a thin coating of algae, dirt and tiny mollusks. In places the hull was just three feet off the harbor bottom.

On the front of the trailer are two air compressors, which pump air through lines so the divers can breathe. These lines also carry video and voice communications, allowing divers to speak with team members in the trailer. All their activities, descriptions and the periodic hiss of their breathing are recorded on tape.

Divers were preparing yesterday to string a taut cable from bow to stern beneath the keel. The distances between the cable and the keel will be measured to document just how much the keel has bent upward, or "hogged." The measurements also would be used to build blocks to support the ship in dry-dock.

Navy riggers yesterday began trussing the ship with steel cables in an effort to prevent further damage while its future is decided.

One-inch-thick steel cables were being looped through the gunports to stop horizontal spreading of the hull. Today, divers were to help the riggers place 6-inch wide nylon "belly bands" through the gunports and under the ship to support the hull and frame timbers.

More steel cables will be run from bow to stern, supported by bracing timbers amidships, to prevent the ship's keel from continuing to hog.

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