Cutter's revival marks end of an era Rebuilding: In re-commissioning the refurbished cutter Decisive on Friday, the Coast Guard was bidding farewell to the last of 14 ships that had dominated work at the Curtis Bay yard over the past decade.

October 10, 1998|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's U.S. Coast Guard Yard celebrated the newest product of its labors Friday, re-commissioning the cutter Decisive with all the requisite pomp and flourish.

But even as the Coast Guard welcomed the refurbished cutter into its fleet, the Curtis Bay shipyard bade farewell to the last of 14 ships that not only dominated the yard's workload the past decade but saved it from closing in 1989.

As the last of the 210-foot cutters leaves Baltimore for drug-interdiction duty in the Caribbean Sea, the yard's 685 civilian workers continue a schedule of building and refitting ships that should keep them working at least through 1999. After that, the yard's commander can't promise how much work they'll have or where it will come from.

Like his employees, he's sorry to see the cutters go.

"Delivery of the Decisive represents a peak in our workload. There will be a tapering down after this," said Capt. Alan Gracewski, commander of the Coast Guard Yard. "Does this mean we don't have other work? No it doesn't. Are we concerned about the long term? Yes we are."

As dressed-white Coast Guard officers gave speeches and ordered the ceremonial "manning of the ship," several dozen civilian workers in heavy boots and raincoats looked on from the background. The sailors will take the ship on a two-month shakedown cruise to test its new equipment before sailing it to its new home berth in Pascagoula, Miss.

Like the 13 before it, the cutter re-commissioned yesterday was practically a new ship, built inside the skeleton of one launched 30 years before. The workers had gutted the Decisive and sanded it to bare metal 18 months earlier, then refitted it bow to stern.

To the Coast Guard, rehabilitation is a financial practicality -- the $21 million cost per ship is perhaps half that of new construction. To the civilians, each cutter meant about 350,000 man-hours of work spread over a year and a half. One ship employed at least 100 people at a time.

The Coast Guard's 210-foot cutters are stationed around the country, performing search-and- rescue missions, drug interdiction and other law enforcement duties. In 1982, the original Decisive fired 300 .50-caliber rounds into the engine compartment of a Colombian fishing boat that refused orders to stop. Coast Guard officers later boarded it and seized 1,000 bales of marijuana.

The Coast Guard also used Friday's ceremony to begin its campaign recognizing the Baltimore yard's 100th anniversary. The yard, on Curtis Creek just south of Curtis Bay, was founded in 1899.

Baltimore's is the only public Coast Guard yard in the country, but the service gives it only about 10 percent of its necessary repair and construction work. The rest is contracted to private shipyards, a balance that led the Coast Guard to target the yard for closure in the late 1980s.

After refurbishing five of the service's cutters -- the "A-class" fleet -- Baltimore lost the contracts on the remaining "B-class" cutters to a shipyard in Norfolk, Va., and Coast Guard officials made plans to shut the yard for good. But the private yard lost the contracts because of performance problems, and the work reverted to Baltimore.

Before the cutter rehabilitation program ended, the yard was operating 20 percent over capacity, with employees working 20 percent overtime and an annual payroll, including 90 uniformed personnel, of $24.6 million.

No layoffs are planned, but the workload -- worth $67 million last year -- will decline and some jobs could be lost to attrition, Gracewski said.

The yard is currently rebuilding an old U.S. Navy salvage tug that will be commissioned as a Coast Guard cutter called the Alex Haley. It also has some smaller repair and construction work to do, but nothing approaching the 10-year promise of "the 210s."

"We're going to miss it," said Harry Goode, a rigger who started working for the yard in 1968. Wrapped in yellow rain gear, he watched Friday's ceremony perched atop a stack of telephone poles, cigar clenched in his teeth.

"This isn't it for us, though," he said. "We'll still be around. They've been talking about closing this yard as long as I've been here, but we just keep on doing them good work."

Pub Date: 10/10/98

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