At Curtis Bay, a tradition of service


May 13, 2007|By Deborah Dramby | Deborah Dramby,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

After 50 years of service and generations of family members in the business, Daniel Hahn's history is deeply rooted in the Baltimore Coast Guard Yard. His father worked there for 30 years as an auto mechanic and met his mother through a co-worker. In 1933, Hahn was born in their home, just outside the yard entrance. In 1957, he found his way inside.

His father was a minister at Arundel Cove Methodist Church, where Hahn attended services with Rory Downey's grandfather. Downey is a quality assurance team manager at the yard. They went to church with Keith Hare's and Shana Hutchinson's grandfather, Charlie Heartlove, who owned the local pub.

Hare and Hutchinson are employed at the yard along with their cousin John Wolfe, who works on guns. Hare's father, Rick, used to work with Hutchinson in the scheduling branch and, years before, was Hahn's helper. Five of Hahn's uncles worked there - one as a crane operator, another as a painter - and only he can untangle the roots of his family's history at Curtis Bay. Hahn has spent most of his career as an electrician, and since 1990 has been a tool room mechanic.

The Coast Guard Yard is filled with generations of tradesmen, and throughout its 108 years it has developed a richness in services as well. It is the workplace for more than 500 marine workers and 90 military personnel, and since the closing of the West Coast yard after World War II, is the Coast Guard's sole remaining shipbuilding and repair facility. The yard serves as headquarters for Coast Guard Sector Baltimore and Coast Guard Curtis Bay.

The Engineering and Logistics Total Command Center there employs nearly 600 military and civilian personnel. The center coordinates mechanical, electrical and general support for the Coast Guard's fleet and activities.

The Coast Guard cutters Sledge and James Rankin also call the yard home. The small buoy tenders are a common sight for area boaters, but few know exactly how many minds, hands and machines work together to keep them in top condition.

The James Rankin and its 18-member crew tend to more than 400 buoys in the Chesapeake Bay and the entrance to the Potomac River. The vessel can perform search-and-rescue, maritime law enforcement and environmental protection missions. The Sledge is responsible for maintaining 36 lighted and 147 unlighted buoys. It is a combination tug/pusher boat and barge, and services more than 1,000 light structures and day beacons. Its 15-member crew also tends 285 other buoys. Both cutters are named after lighthouse attendants.

Workers call the yard a "one-stop shop" for ship repair. Ninety-nine percent of the work they do is on Coast Guard vessels. And while they are working on about a half-dozen boats, they have hundreds of projects and long-term jobs to keep them busy.

As their contribution to a fleet modernization initiative called Project Deepwater, the yard's workers have been overhauling and refurbishing patrol boats, known as the Legacy Fleet, in an effort to extend the ships' usefulness for 15 more years. Keeping them in peak condition while new ships are built is more complicated than one might guess. An overhaul on one of the cutters - 110 feet, 210 feet or 270 feet in length - takes about 12 months.

Matt Suit, a quality assurance specialist, spoke of their work: "The 210s were gutted, but with the 110s we sort of pick and choose. We don't want to put too much money in with Deepwater coming up."

Suit, whose stepson represents the fourth generation of his family to work there, sums up the yard's role in the Deepwater project: "The deepwater ships will come in when they need a manicure and a pedicure."

Suit also has worked as a pipefitter apprentice, tool room attendant and on electronics gear. He has been part of another of the yard's unique services: the road teams. If a vessel on the West Coast needs repair, it would have to head down the coast, through the Panama Canal, then north to Baltimore. The costs for fuel and housing the crew is high, so the yard assembles "road shows" that take workers to the boat instead of bringing the boat to them. Road shows may mean three people for three days or 23 for a few months, depending on the repairs.

There are five public shipyards in the United States, including the yard in Maryland. The Coast Guard Yard can do just about anything the Navy yards do, except for nuclear work. Rhode Island, Virginia, Washington state and Hawaii yards do not handle the very specialized gun repairs done by the Baltimore yard. Mark 75 weapon system repairs require special skills not readily available in other yards.

The Coast Guard Yard has been involved in a number of major projects in recent years. From 1997 to 2000, it built 26 small buoy boats that now operate in 13 states. Four years ago, about 25 percent of the yard's work was done for the Army. Now, nearly all the work is on Coast Guard ships.

While the newest workers focus on learning their trades, folks like Daniel Hahn reflect on the many years, generations, occupations and memories at the yard.

Lavonia Witherspoon, a welder, is proud to see her son William Martin follow in her footsteps and those of her brother in the maritime trade. Rory Downey traces his roots in the yard to his great-grandfather Nick Johns and grandfather Fred Downey.

Recently, workers gathered in the electronics shop to see Daniel Hahn receive honors from Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and President Bush. As Lt. Isaac Saenz awarded Hahn a 50-year pin from Adm. T.W. Allen, the Coast Guard commandant, a voice yelled, "Thatta boy, Danny!"

On April 5, Hahn became a part of U.S. history, gaining a record at the Library of Congress. A letter from the president states that Hahn's service "reflects the character of America."

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