Constellation needs more repairs, lawmakers offer less money

March 29, 1995|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

The old warship Constellation was shelled from two directions yesterday, with unwelcome news from both Navy inspectors and the General Assembly.

Navy divers working beneath the ship in Baltimore's Inner Harbor found that the "hog," or upward bend in the ship's keel, has increased by more than 7 inches since 1993.

Time and gravity have now caused the bow and stern of the ship to sag and pushed the center of the ship's bottom upward more than 34 inches, slowly crushing the hull like the side of a soda can. When built 142 years ago, the keel was flat.

Also yesterday, the Constellation Foundation got word that a Senate subcommittee had approved $600,000 in state bond money for the ship's repair -- the same amount recommended by the governor, but far less than the $3 million the city delegation had sought.

The House Appropriations Committee, meanwhile, voted for just $500,000. The final figure will be worked out by a conference committee, but the foundation's bid for more than $600,000 appears to be lost.

"Needless to say, we are not real happy campers right now," said Louis F. Linden, the foundation's executive director. "We're re-examining all the assumptions we made and seeing if there is some way we can keep the boat afloat, get her into dry dock and actually get something under way."

Peter Boudreau, builder of the Pride of Baltimore II and a consultant to the foundation, had expected to hear that the hog had grown from 27 inches to 30 inches in two years. He said a 34-inch hog was a surprise.

"The hogging rate has speeded up," he said. "It's possible that removing the rigging [done a year ago as a safety precaution] might have increased the hog all in one chunk. [The ship] is so limber that there isn't much resistance to it."

The worsening hog is causing other stresses in the ship which, if ignored, will eventually cause damage serious enough to sink it.

The hog also poses added challenges to repair crews. They would have to build dry-dock supports that match the ship's distorted contours. Then they would slowly adjust those supports until the keel is again flat.

Finally, they would have to repair the damage that the keel straightening itself would create elsewhere in the ship as its timbers adjust to the new shape. Because repairs to the upper decks in the 1960s and 1970s were done without straightening the keel, such damage is more likely.

Unless the foundation has the will and the money to conduct such major repairs, Mr. Boudreau said, the ship has a doubtful future. "I think it's a choice of keeping her or discarding her at this stage," he said.

The foundation had devised a tentative $9 million plan to dry-dock the ship, straighten the hog, strengthen the hull and restore the rest of the ship to its 1850s appearance as a sloop-of-war. The hope was to finish by the city's 1997 bicentennial.

The city has pledged $3 million from a bond issue if voters approve it next fall. Another $3 million would be raised from private donors. The remaining $3 million was to have come from the state.

The legislative committees faced difficult choices -- more than $125 million in bond requests, but only $12.5 million to spend.

"If one looks solely at that, we got a pretty substantial share of what they had to spend, and we're not ungrateful for that," Mr. Linden said.

The foundation must seek ways to "rearrange the sequence of repairs, defer the purchase of materials and see if there is some way we can go forward," he said. "One thing is certain. This ship is not going to be finished by any bicentennial."

On board yesterday, a team of riggers and carpenters from the Naval Historical Center Detachment Boston continued stabilizing the ship, part of a $265,000 federal project.

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