Constellation's keel, hull in relatively good shape

March 31, 1995|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

U.S. Navy divers finished their inspection of the Constellation yesterday and reported that the wood in the 1853 warship's keel and lower hull planks is surprisingly sound.

The ship's caretakers say many questions remain, including the condition of portions of the ship's frame that cannot be seen unless outer hull planking is removed in dry dock.

But "the keel is in good shape, and that has an impact of at least $250,000 [in repair savings] when you figure the materials and labor," said Louis F. Linden, executive director of the Constellation Foundation.

The foundation is trying to raise $9 million in public and private money to get the ship to dry dock for strengthening and restoration. A drive to raise at least $3 million from foundations, corporate and private sources is now being planned in 30 to 60 days, Mr. Linden said.

Inspectors, riggers and ship's carpenters from the Naval Historical Detachment Boston have been working on board the Constellation for two weeks, part of a $265,000 project ordered last fall by Congress.

They have nearly finished inspecting the ship, taking wood borings for testing, and strengthening the hull. About 200 heavy shoring timbers were installed below decks, and a system of cables and nylon straps has been put in place to hold the ship together until the foundation can find the money to move it to dry dock.

A preliminary report on the Navy inspection is expected within about four weeks. Navy officials have said a final report to Congress will be completed several months after that.

Lt. Commander Fred Bahrke, who directed an eight-man team of divers from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, in Kittery, Maine, said his men cleaned the ship's keel, stem and stern skeg (vertical pieces at the bow and stern), probed with their knives and found the wood "in very good condition." Only portions of the ship's hull planking got the same treatment, for fear that cleaning the planks to get a better look might accelerate the ship's leaks.

But where it was inspected, Mr. Bahrke said, "the wood hull planking was in relatively good condition. The paint scheme has held up well."

The divers found the keel, while solid, was severely "hogged," or bent -- a problem that could be corrected in dry dock. The only other significant damage was a 4-foot section of the "worm shoe" which appeared to have been torn off. Remaining portions showed some rot. The worm shoe is a 6-inch-thick strip of wood bolted to the bottom of the keel to protect it from damage.

Peter Boudreau, a shipbuilder and consultant to the Constellation Foundation, said he was surprised by the relatively solid condition of the keel and planking.

The ship's interior was less encouraging. Core samples were taken from accessible lower sections of the ship's frames, or vertical "ribs," some of which are probably original.

The work suggests that about half of the wood is sound, Mr. Boudreau said. But until the hull planks are removed in dry dock, he said, it will be impossible to know.

As for the beams and knees that support the decks, he said, about 75 percent of the wood has deteriorated beyond saving.

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