Keeping Naval Academy classes afloat

Barge arrives to replace storm-soaked classrooms

October 15, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

When most schools need extra classroom space, they wheel in a couple of trailers.

At the Naval Academy, they brought in a barge.

In its search for temporary replacements for classrooms flooded by Tropical Storm Isabel, the academy called in a gargantuan vessel that had just wrapped up a tour housing more than 1,000 sailors from a dry-docked aircraft carrier in Florida.

A tugboat hauled the ship - more of a floating five-story hotel and office complex - up to the school's Severn River seawall last week. The vessel lowered its gangplanks yesterday and opened for classes.

"It's a very low-cost solution that allows us to continue the recovery and restoration efforts to damaged classrooms," said school spokesman Cmdr. Rod Gibbons. "As an added benefit, it allows us to conduct classes afloat."

Inside the barge yesterday afternoon, midshipmen in crisp blue uniforms descended steep ladders into the hold and navigated a warren of narrow halls to windowless rooms where professors gamely held forth on Shakespeare and Spanish verb tenses.

Classes have taken over the ship's administrative offices, conference rooms and even its tiny chapel, where midshipmen crowded into the pews and a professor lectured from the pulpit.

Tropical Storm Isabel inflicted at least $80 million in damage at the academy last month. An 8-foot wall of water surged over the school's seawall and through the halls and basements of several buildings.

As workers tear up floors and replace waterlogged drywall, the academy has made the barge a temporary home for 13 humanities classes flooded out of Sampson Hall.

Gray leviathan

The vessel's ungainly name, Auxiliary Personnel Lighter 61, matches its ungainly looks. Its boxy steel exterior, painted a monolithic gray, is 360 feet long by 95 feet wide by 58 feet tall. From a distance, it has all the glamour of a floating cinder block.

It was built in 1997 as a "barracks craft." Mission: house and feed sailors for months, dockside, while their aircraft carrier undergoes repairs. Inside, there is a running track, bank, medical and dental offices, a post office, and mess halls, but no engine.

The barge just finished a 9-month tour berthing sailors from the USS John F. Kennedy in Mayport, Fla. It was a day from being tugged back to its home port in Norfolk, Va., on Oct. 2 when the Naval Academy called to take a look.

The crew had shut off the barge's power. So when the ship's chief caretaker, George Maples, a civilian, gave three academy officials a tour, he led them through the darkened halls with a flashlight.

No matter. The school officials were sold.

The barge, hauled by a 25,000-horsepower tug, made the voyage to Annapolis in three days. Despite its arresting appearance, city officials said recreational sailors have been too busy with the annual boat show at City Dock, with its flashy multimillion-dollar yachts, to pay it mind.

Minor changes

Maples said getting the vessel ready for class was little trouble. Chairs already were on board, and just six desks had to be moved out of offices. A few green and red arrows were taped to the walls to direct students through the labyrinthine passageways.

Maples, a grizzled man with a seen-it-all look, said he is used to hasty retoolings. In 2000 and 2001, at the request of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the Navy offered the barge as a rest stop for bicyclists in a charity ride that makes a one-night layover at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. (That academy's own vessel was out of commission at the time.)

The Naval Academy will have use of the barge until late January, when it will return to Norfolk to berth sailors from a dry-docked USS Theodore Roosevelt. By then, the school hopes to have completed repairs to Sampson Hall.

In the meantime, said Maples, the midshipmen will enjoy a suite of classrooms only slightly different from those on land.

The flat-bottomed barge is big enough - it covers more than three-quarters of an acre of water - not to heave in choppy seas. But if midshipmen are quiet enough, he said, they will be able hear the slap of waves against the steel hull separating their new classrooms from the seas beyond.

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