Constellation set for move to dry dock Warship's reconstruction expected to take 2 1/2 years

November 16, 1996|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

A decade of neglect will draw to a close tomorrow as the sagging, rot-riddled warship Constellation is towed from the Inner Harbor for 2 1/2 years of reconstruction at Fort McHenry -- its first major repair since 1982.

If all goes well, it should return in spring 1999 with a straightened keel and a look truer to its 1854 origins. It will get a new hull, two new decks and masts and rigging to replace those removed in 1994 to ensure they didn't fall on tourists.

Louis F. Linden, executive director of the Constellation Foundation, said he expects the move will be so uneventful it will "put the entire harbor to sleep."

But the ship's weakened frames and rotting planks have forced everyone connected with the move to plan for the worst sort of drama -- a historic sinking.

If the hull begins to leak too fast for its emergency pumps, the ship likely will be grounded in a shallow place where it would not obstruct shipping, and where salvage could be attempted later.

The Northwest Branch of the Patapsco River will be closed to private boating during the move. Police launches will clear a "safety zone" extending 500 feet in front of and behind the ship, and 200 feet on each side.

The festivities will begin at 10 a.m., with remarks by U.S. Navy Secretary John H. Dalton, Maryland Transportation Secretary David L. Winstead and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

At 10: 25 a.m., the 179-foot Civil War veteran will be untied and tugged gently from its berth in front of the Pratt Street Harborplace Pavilion.

Tended by tugboats, the ship will be pulled away under a 19-gun salute from howitzers of the 29th Infantry Division.

From then on, planners want no excitement at all.

"There is no way to completely eliminate the risk, although we have been able to minimize it," said shipwright Peter Boudreau, builder of the Pride of Baltimore II and chief of the restoration. Navy experts have shored up the ship with steel cables, nylon belly straps and rubber sheets.

"If the unthinkable were to happen," he said, "we would look first to the safety of the people on board. Second is the ship."

The 1.9-mile voyage is expected to take about an hour. The destination is Graving Dock No. 5 at the Fort McHenry Shipyard, a dry dock where the $9 million restoration will begin next month.

A "captain's meeting" yesterday brought together key personnel from the Coast Guard, marine units of the Baltimore police and fire departments, Vane Brothers tug company and a diver who may be called on to plug leaks.

A crew of 10, including Boudreau, will be aboard the ship to watch for unusual leaks, keep the pumps running and switch on more if they are needed.

The ship's three pumps can remove 30,000 gallons an hour from the bilge. Auxiliary pumps and generators can boost that to 150,000 gallons an hour.

No crew members will be allowed below decks without Boudreau knowing they're there. If the ship starts to sink, everyone will be hustled onto the Wilkate, a Vane Brothers freight boat on hand to carry extra lines, fenders and oil booms.

The tug Elizabeth Anne has been assigned towing duties with the Captain Russit on standby.

Pub Date: 11/16/96

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