Enormous 'glue job' refloats Constellation 1854 warship moves from dry dock after 19-month renovation

August 22, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

It floats.

After 19 months and more than 160,000 man-hours of labor at the Fort McHenry Dry Dock, the 1854 warship Constellation was refloated yesterday. It will be towed upriver next week to begin 11 more months of restoration at the Maryland Port Administration's Pier 8.

"Constellation has an outstanding future in a new century and a new millennium," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who spoke to an overflow crowd at the dockside launch ceremonies.

Like any old war veteran, the ship let out a few creaks and groans as it rose from the bottom of the graving dock. The noises startled shipbuilder Peter Boudreau, who designed and supervised the restoration. He paced the dock, issuing orders and keeping a nervous watch on the amount of river water seeping into the bilges.

The launch ended safely and on schedule at 1 p.m. The ship was pulled to its temporary mooring outside the dock's gate. Boudreau, whose day began three hours before dawn, pronounced it a success.

"We're all very tired but very happy with the way things have gone," he said.

At Pier 8, workers will complete the construction of Constellation's gun deck and build a new spar deck and bulwarks. New masts and rigging will be installed in time for the ship's return to the Inner Harbor, which is expected by July.

A veteran of the Civil War and the anti-slavery African Squadron, the Constellation retains about 50 percent of its original wood, said Louis F. Linden, former executive director of the Constellation Foundation. Most of that is in the keel, rudder, stem and rudder post, many of its frames, or ribs, and in the hull planks on the ship's bottom.

The $9 million restoration involved what Boudreau has called "the world's biggest glue job."

The Constellation Foundation could not afford a traditional restoration, which some had estimated would cost $25 million or more and require replacement of most of the ship's original wood.

Instead, Boudreau proposed replacing the ship's weakened hull planks with a system of criss-crossed wooden lattice glued and sealed by modern epoxies.

The final layer of planking is horizontal so that the ship's appearance is unchanged. But Boudreau and his team are convinced that the superior strength of the diagonal glued lattice behind the outer planks is enough to support the ship, even as the 1854 frames inside continue to age.

New technology

Such technology has never been used on such a large ship.

Water from the Patapsco River began rushing into the 104-year-old Dry Dock No. 5 at 7: 24 a.m. The ship still rested on its wooden blocks, its fresh black, white, green and gold paint gleaming in the morning sunshine. The green bottom paint is meant to simulate the tarnished copper sheeting that would have protected the original ship from shipworms.

Intricately carved gold trailboards on the ship's bow have been restored and replaced. So have the three gold stars and the gold stern lettering that spells out its name. Nineteen brass portholes -- an original feature eliminated during a prior restoration -- have been added to each side.

By 9: 16 a.m., the water had risen about 14 feet up the side of the ship, churning up a foamy head and uprooting plenty of summer grass and trash from the dock's bottom.

Suddenly, the ship began to tug at lines that until then had hung slack. Hand-held radios all around the shipyard crackled as dockmaster Paul Behrends reported in, saying, "All stations! Dockmaster. Ship's afloat!"

"It's always nice to see a ship float right-side up," said Behrends, a dockmaster with Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss. He has volunteered his time to the Constellation project, he said, because "it is an opportunity to be a part of history."

All through yesterday's launch, Constellation's electric maintenance pump ran, pouring a steady 40 gallons of water a minute out of the bilge and off the ship's stern. Periodically, one of two much bigger emergency pumps switched on and sent water gushing off the starboard side as the ship continued to leak.

Boudreau kept a wary eye on the pumping rates and repeatedly radioed his team on board for more reports on the leakage. Such "weepage" is normal, he said.

"A new ship would leak less than this," he said. But the original planking on the Constellation's bottom, though remarkably well-preserved, has thousands of "checks" -- small cracks -- and holes from old fasteners. The old planks also dried and shrank during the 19 months in dry dock.

"It's going to leak until they have swelled up [with water] and filled with silt," Boudreau said. In a few weeks, the leak rate should have slowed enough to be managed easily by the small maintenance pump.

The Constellation's new upper planking is sealed tight with epoxy glues, caulk and paint.

At 10 a.m., water was pumped from the century-old caisson, or gate, that had sealed the dry dock from the Patapsco's waters. Once afloat, it was towed aside, clearing the way for Constellation to pass through.

'Incredible day'

"What an incredible day this is," said Gail Shawe, chairwoman of the Constellation Foundation, just before shipyard workers grabbed their ropes and walked the ship out of the dry dock just before 1 p.m.

"Though the project is not finished," she told spectators, "the Constellation has been saved. She is actually floating on her own again."

The foundation is $2.5 million short of the $9 million needed to finish the restoration.

Pub Date: 8/22/98

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