'It's like moving an egg'

Constellation will be carefully pushed to commissioning ceremony

August 08, 2008|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,Sun reporter

Mark McCluskey's thousand-horsepower tugboat, which usually hauls oil barges all over Baltimore Harbor, is set to gently nudge and prod an especially precious vessel this afternoon: the 154-year-old sloop-of-war Constellation.

"It's like moving an egg," said McCluskey, 40, the easygoing captain of the tug Alexander Duff.

About 5:30 tonight, Baltimore's most familiar maritime treasure will make a rare getaway from its Inner Harbor berth to take part in tomorrow's commissioning of the $1.3 billion destroyer USS Sterett in South Locust Point.

It's up to McCluskey and his mates at Vane Brothers towing in Fairfield to get the sloop there and back in one piece by early Sunday. The tug operators are key players in a complex choreography featuring the Coast Guard, the Baltimore Police Department marine unit, the Navy and the Constellation Museum.

"I am always nervous as a cat when this ship is under way," said Christopher Rowsom, the museum's executive director and overall conductor of this trip. "I probably won't show it, but my eyes are on everything. I'm always watching."

Planning for the three-mile jaunt began months ago. The Coast Guard had to approve a temporary safety zone around the ship - 200 yards ahead, 100 yards in other directions - as it glides across the harbor. The Naval Sea Systems Command had to give its blessing. Although the ship was donated to the city in 1955, the Navy has oversight.

Then there are the contingency plans just in case the ship "springs a plank," as Rowsom put it. The tug could hastily make for land at a number of spots, such as Clinton Street. In the unlikely event that the 150 people aboard have to abandon ship, the Navy Operational Support Center has arranged for an open-air landing craft to trail it.

But the most hands-on job belongs to Vane Brothers, which by now knows the drill. The towing company has moved the ship for free about once a year since the mid-1990s, when Charles Hughes Sr. - whose family owns the company - sat on the Constellation Museum's board.

"It's our gift to the city," said his wife, Betsy Hughes, vice president of Vane Brothers.

The last time the Constellation, completed in 1854, traveled on its own was in 1893, when it sailed a final time after a career that included intercepting slave ships from Africa. For more than a century, it has relied on borrowed brawn. When it came to Baltimore from Newport, R.I., in 1955, it traveled via floating dry dock.

If anything, the ship is better able to withstand a move today than a decade ago, Rowsom said. By 1992 the Navy had condemned it, so when Vane Brothers floated it away in 1996 for a nearly three-year restoration, Betsy Hughes worried that the ship might break apart and sink.

Then, as now, the towing company's point man was Jim Demske. He will stand on the Constellation's deck as pilot, coordinating every move by radio with McCluskey, another Constellation veteran, on the tug.

"Fortunately, most of these trips have been - let me knock on wood here - pretty routine," Demske said. That has been true of quick turnarounds to let the ship weather evenly, as well as a more ambitious float to Annapolis in 2004 for 150th birthday.

"When it's uneventful," he said, "it's a great trip."

The diciest part is getting the Constellation out of its Pier One slip near the Harborplace pavilions. Because it's tucked between the pier and pilings, 25 to 30 line handlers will have to pull - or "warp" - the ship halfway out of its berth by hand.

"Then," Rowsom said, "we'll get the tug hooked up on the hip on the port quarter." Translation: The tug will be tethered to the ship's rear left side. Three lines will bind tug and sloop. A second tugboat will be there on standby.

For McCluskey, this job is a big departure from the norm. The ship's hull is made of wood, for one thing, whereas the barges he normally transports have steel shells.

"Everything else we move you can grab and manhandle," he said. "Grabbing that, it's like a bull in a china shop. You'll rip it apart."

Yesterday morning, McCluskey made a typical run from Fairfield over to Locust Point. His tug's mighty engines roared and its throttle hissed as he maneuvered into position and linked up with a 196-foot-long oil barge.

"We're married to this thing right now," McCluskey said. He pointed to twin lines winched to the barge as tightly as a wedding band. "It's part of us."

For a half-hour, he motored the tug under cotton-ball clouds before unhitching the barge at Domino Sugar. There a hose pumped oil from the barge into the fuel tank of a cargo ship unloading raw sugar. McCluskey would return later to pick up the empty barge.

This regular coupling and uncoupling of tug and barge is what McCluskey does year-round. But today he will add extra padding called sea cushions to the 65-foot tug's fender in preparation for the delicate assignment.

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