Back Story: Chills at end of the United States' voyage home

BACK STORY

Tugboat captain tells of escorting, walking inside speedy ocean liner

  • The United States passes the Delaware Capes under tow by a Dutch oceangoing tug, the Smit New York, in 1996 to Philadelphia. One of the escorting tugboats' captains, Allen Baker, photographed the vessel that still holds the speed record for a North Atlantic crossing.
The United States passes the Delaware Capes under tow by a Dutch… (PHOTO BY CAPT. ALLEN BAKER )
March 21, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep. - Psalm 107:23-30

The last time I spoke to Capt. Allen Baker, who lives in Roland Park, was to hear of his harrowing experiences riding out Hurricane Katrina aboard the tug Joan Moran, which was moored near the Industrial Canal in New Orleans.

After my column appeared last Sunday on preservation battles swirling around the cruiser Olympia, Adm. George E. Dewey's flagship that triumphed over the Spanish naval squadron at Manila Bay in 1898, and the United States, the fabled trans-Atlantic liner, whose 1952 speed record for an ocean crossing remains unbroken, my phone began ringing and my e-mail basket went into meltdown with messages from ship buffs, maritime historians, preservationists and those who simply had memories they wanted to share.

Among them was Baker, who called to say that he was a captain of a tug that brought "The Big U" up the Delaware River after its return from Turkey in 1996.

The vessel had been towed in 1992 from Newport News, Va., its home since 1969 when it was forced into an early retirement, to Turkey and later Sevastopol, in the Crimea, where all the asbestos and lead piping had been removed from the ocean liner's interior.

The ship's powerful steam turbine engines - capable of generating 240,000 shaft horsepower - and its boilers were not removed and remain in good condition.

In its 17 years of service, the United States steamed 2.8 million miles, transported more than a million passengers across the Atlantic, and another 22,800 when in cruise service.

The ship's journey back from Tuzla, a small town near Istanbul on the Sea of Marmara, to its new owners in Philadelphia began June 15, 1996.

"She was towed by the Smit New York, an oceangoing tug, from Turkey to Philadelphia. The voyage took 40 days," Baker said. "Her four props had been removed and lashed on her stern deck. She was built with good, fine lines and was not used to going that slow."

Baker said the vessel's rudders were locked and the towing gear, some 2,700 feet of it, connected the United States to the Smit New York as it slowly crossed the Atlantic.

"There were times when the United States got really moving and raced down on the tug, and other times when she would shear off and race in another direction. Both of these can be pretty terrifying," he said.

Near sunset July 23, the long and painfully slow journey was coming to an end, as the Smit New York and its charge were met by Baker's tug, Eric M. McAllister - as well as the Teresa McAllister, James McAllister, Suzanne McAllister and the America from Baltimore - off the Delaware Capes.

"It was overcast, but what I remember is seeing the ship in the distance, a few miles away. The sun was going down, and the clouds broke just enough that the sun shone on the ship," wrote Baker in a 1996 account published in the Seafarers Log, which is the official publication of the Seafarers International Union, Atlantic, Gulf, Lakes and Inland Waters, AFL-CIO.

"The lofty, gigantic smokestacks are the first thing you see. It gave me a chill down my back, it really did. I don't think anyone thought they'd see it in the United States again," he wrote.

Two tugs each nudged up to the huge steel hull plates of the United States and made fast, with Baker's Eric M. McAllister taking up position on the starboard quarter for steering, speed and braking - duties it shared with the James McAllister, which was on the port quarter.

The Smit New York, as it had since leaving Turkey, continued in the lead, with the America on the starboard bow.

"This is a delicate operation," Baker said the other day. "The river wanders, and the current runs pretty hard through there; it's like riding an elevator, and the channel is narrow, so staying in there is very important."

Baker described the 93-mile transit up the Delaware as being "otherwise uneventful," with everything going according to plan.

He noticed the ship's movement caused a lot of interest among the people witnessing its passage and heard over passing vessels' radios mariners commenting on the United States.

"I remember one New York tug captain, who was heading out to sea, say, 'Well, she looks a little worse for wear, but I'm glad she's home.' It was pretty emotional," Baker recalled.

"When we got up to Paulsboro, N.J., there was an old American tanker that had been built at Sparrows Point in the 1960s, tied up at a chemical terminal," he said.

"Every member of the crew, I counted 30 including the steward wearing his apron, was on deck and every eyeball was on us as we came by," he said.

"The [tanker] captain raced inside the wheelhouse and gave three long blasts on his whistle. He had a real steam whistle, and it gave me the chills," Baker said.

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