MARAD's Now Rapid Pace of Ship Disposal Evokes Nostalgia at MarEx
76th Ship Departs James River Reserve Fleet, the ex-USNS Rigel, to be recycled at the All-Star Marine facility in Brownsville, Texas. MarEx Managing Editor Keefe was briefly assigned to the vessel in 1982. I am officially getting rather old. With the impending scrapping of the RIGEL, this leaves perhaps just two ships from my abbreviated seagoing career still left afloat. I believe that the BLUE RIDGE, a product / chemical tanker and the crude carrier KENAI are the last two in service. Preceding the RIGEL's ultimate demise, the USNS MARIAS has since been scrapped, and the USNS HOYT S. VANDENBERG is being prepared to be sunk as an artificial reef off of Key West, FL (although I hear that there may be some issues still to be ironed out with that deal). The official end of the RIGEL's lifespan made me think of another ship. Another vessel, the S/T "DAVID D. IRWIN," a UNOCAL chemical tanker that I sailed on for the better part of three years, has also long since gone to scrap, following a grain run to either Bangladesh or India (I forget which). A few years after I got laid off from UNOCAL in late 1985, I was sitting in the waiting room of a marine consultant's office in New York City and happened to look up at the picture on the wall over the sofa. I did a double take and realized it was my old ship. In the photo, the stack had been repainted, of course, and the name on the bow was "FAIRWIND." I asked the person I was visiting about the photo and he admitted that the folks sharing the suite were in the business of preparing ships for scrapping. "Why the name FAIRWIND?" I asked. He replied gravely, "It involved the least amount of letter alterations on the bow." The picture was taken at Capetown, fully loaded with grain. He explained that the vessel was taking on bunkers there. I remember well my last couple of weeks on the "DAVID D. IRWIN," or the "Daisy D," as we affectionately called her. We had arrived in Smith's Bluff, Texas, from yet another coastwise run, where we discharged a load of chemicals, lube oils, gasoline, Toluene, Xylene, Heptane, Hexane and a few other really nasty products at five ports and at least ten berths. As soon as we docked in Texas, however, the office called the officers down one at a time to the office to let us know of our impending termination (my wife still refers to this moment as when I was fired). Probably two or three were to be retained and reassigned to another vessel. Not long after that, we had loaded our final cargoes on board and took last line for a final time at the vessel's home port. At about the same time we were to depart the berth, the other tanker in UNOCAL's Gulf Coast fleet, the S/T "BLUE RIDGE," was inbound to the same berth. And, although we could have sailed promptly and passed her nicely in a port-to-port fashion, the company elected to keep us firmly alongside until the BLUE RIDGE was safely beyond us. I often wondered whether they were nervous about a potential collision which might wipe out the entire two ship fleet in one fell swoop, or rather, did they think a bitter seaman might do it for them on purpose. In any event, I know that I have never seen so many tugboats in one place in my entire life; before or since. Two pushed us at 'Half Ahead' onto the pier, another lingered in mid-channel and there were at least three fully made up on the other ship as it eased by on a dead slow bell. When we finally reached Philadelphia, PA on that final trip, we had just a little cargo left to discharge. Before then, a group of so-called "consultants" had boarded at a previous berth. They scoured the vessel, taking inventory, and generally picked our brains as to the nuances of the vessel. The consultants also tempted us with possible employment on the grain run, in exchange for specific knowledge on the vessel's different systems. As there wasn't much in the way of shipping opportunities at the time, most of the officers cooperated to one extent or another. None of those jobs, to the best of my knowledge, ever materialized and the vessel sailed off to be scrapped with a skeleton crew on board. The IRWIN, having been jumboized many years before (1961, I think), had 33 tanks and 16 pumps and about a million headers fitted with a jungle of crossover deck piping. Any tank on the ship could, in theory, be pumped by any of those pumps, through an elaborate labyrinth of crossovers and isolation valves. The vessel's new (interim) owners found out very quickly that they had their hands full and that the clean-up for the grain run would not be an easy one. I, for one, was glad that I would not be eating any of the grain loaded onto a ship that had, for more than 40 years, carried every conceivable kind of liquid cargo except perhaps asphalt. It was here that I learned a little bit about the scrapping business. At the time, most of these old hulls were headed overseas. The fully cleaned vessel was usually loaded with grain, fueled up and off they went to the final port of call. There, the grain was unloaded and then the vessel would be run up onto the beach to be dismantled. In general terms, it was explained to me, the (freight on the) grain paid for the operating costs and bunkers during the final sea passage and the scrap value of the boat represented the profit in the deal. I have no idea whether those metrics still hold true in today's markets. The James River Reserve Fleet is one of three National Defense Reserve Fleets (NDRF) anchorage sites. The Maritime Administration maintains the NDRF as a reserve of ships for national defense and national emergencies and arranges for responsible disposal when the ships are no longer considered viable for those purposes. The ex "USNS Rigel," fitting into the latter category, is a breakbulk ship, built in 1955. Today, the U.S. Maritime Administration's effort to dispose of the old vessels berthed at their three National Defense Reserve Fleets is finally picking up some real steam (no pun intended). Long stymied because of legal and environmental challenges, here and abroad, the vessels are fairly flying out of the fleets these days. Of course, the intended depletion of the Suisan Bay, CA fleet is a notable exception to the rule. There, California is demanding that the vessel's hulls be cleaned prior to movement so as to prevent the spread of invasive species. Look for the pace of scrapping operations to pick up in the near term. With some domestic steel mills working full tilt in the face of higher steel prices, MARAD is even receiving money in exchange for the old hulls. In the past, they had to pay in some cases, just to get the vessels taken away. What a difference a couple of years can make. – MarEx. Joseph Keefe is the Managing Editor of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with comments and/or questions on this or any other article in this e-newsletter at email@example.com.
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