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South Jersey

October 31, 1999
Easing ship into berth a lesson in finesse

Docking an 887-foot, 45,000-ton battleship isn't like parking the family car. But that's the sort of thing Capt. John Flynn Jr. does every day.

"The New Jersey is coming about 5,000 miles, and the idea is to get it stopped at the dock, not a foot into the dock," he said. "If you misjudge . . . well, then you have some paperwork to do."

As a pilot for more than 30 years, Flynn, a New Jersey native now living in Middletown, Monmouth County, has guided hundreds of ships in and out of port - many bigger than the battleship New Jersey. He is among the group of pilots who may be assigned to bring the World War II-era vessel into its temporary berth at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

While no docking procedure is ever routine, Flynn said whoever is chosen to bring the New Jersey in will be well-trained.

"These are the things we do every day," he said.

John Gazzola, vice president and general manager of Moran Towing, the Philadelphia tug boat company that will help bring the battleship up the Delaware, expects little difficulty easing the New Jersey into its berth.

"It's what we do for a living," he said. "The difference is this is the New Jersey. If it was any other ship, nobody would care."

The battleship was scheduled to arrive on Nov. 7, but engine trouble aboard the tug pulling the New Jersey has delayed that for at least four days.

A spokesman for the crew said Saturday that the repair work and switch to a new tug have been delayed by bad weather.

"We had the tug Mariner headed on its way out to assist the Sea Victory," Ryan Malane said, but "they've had a little bit of trouble with heavy swells out there. The seas are about 10-foot swells."

So, Malone said, "They're not going to be able to make the transfer today. They're probably going to make that tomorrow if the weather is favorable.

"We're expecting it will be easier tomorrow, but we're taking the utmost precautions for safety. So the weather will have to be good for us to transfer the tow and repair the turbo."

He said there are two engineers from General Motors, manufacturer of the Sea Victory's engines, aboard the Mariner. "They will help assess the problem with one of the Sea Victory's engines.''

If the weather permits, the tow will be transferred to the Mariner, Capt. Kaare Ogaard reported, and the Sea Victory will head to Miami for repairs today. Saturday, the Sea Victory headed closer to Cuba to avoid any problems from Tropical Storm Katrina in the Caribbean. Then it will be determined if a repair at sea is possible or if the Sea Victory will have to put in at Miami for the repair and then catch up with the New Jersey later," he said.

The 85-mile trip up the Delaware is the last leg of the battleship's 5,800-mile journey from Washington state. The ship is being towed along most of the route by Sea Victory, a tug specially designed for long-distance ocean trips.

The New Jersey will be docked at the shipyard while the Navy decides its final home, either Bayonne or Camden.

Once that decision is made, the New Jersey - the nation's most decorated ship of war - will be converted into a floating museum and memorial to those who served aboard it over the course of five decades. The New Jersey, which was launched in 1942, served in every major conflict from World War II to just before the Gulf War.

But first the vessel must be taken safely to the naval shipyard, which will be a complicated procedure.

When the ship reaches the mouth of the Delaware Bay, three Moran tugs will join the Sea Victory to help guide the ship safely upriver. Two tugs will be stationed on each side of the bow and one on the stern.

"Their job will be to keep the ship square in the river," Gazzola said. "It would be like running a tractor-trailer on the highway, you want to keep it in the lane."

Pilots will be on board to guide the tugs through the busy channel. It will take some 17 hours to bring the ship from the mouth of the river to a spot just outside the shipyard. There, the ship will be handed over to a docking pilot, like Flynn, who will guide it into its berth.

Even under the best conditions, that process could take another two hours, he said. And the docking will be especially tricky because the New Jersey won't be under its own power. Five or possibly six tugs will be attached to the ship to maneuver it into place, but even their combined horsepower amounts to less than 10 percent of what the New Jersey was capable of generating.

"It can seem like a fly trying to steer an elephant," Flynn said.

The New Jersey is not as big as many of the freighters and cargo ships Flynn has handled. But the weight of its thick armor and sleek lines will make it a challenge to maneuver for any pilot.

"One characteristic of this kind of ship is when they get moving, they want to keep moving, and they want to move straight," he said. "If it is going the way you want to go, that's wonderful. If not, well, you have your hands full."

The pilot will have to gauge a number of variables, such as the speed of the ship, weather conditions and the river current.

"One time I had my daughter with me . . . When I finished, she asked, 'Is that all you do?' " Flynn said with a laugh. "If you were there watching me do the job, you would probably be bored. They are very, very subtle forces you must be aware of."

Accidents are extremely rare, but there is little margin for error, Flynn said. Among the biggest concerns would be weather. If conditions turn bad - say a thick fog rolls in - the pilot may decide not to even attempt a docking.

"The forces are so much larger even though the speeds are so much slower. If you are a mile away from something, then you have one foot less than a mile to stop," he said. "When you approach the dock, if you misjudge by much, you will have damage and grounding. That would not be good."

But those involved with the process are well trained to handle any problem that should arise. Flynn expects there will be little excitement, except that generated by the ship itself. And that is more than enough, he said.

"I am kind of a World War II buff anyway. I was born in '44, which is near the end of the war, and a lot of my mentors were veterans of that war," Flynn said. Bringing the New Jersey back "is a labor of love."

It had been known previously the Navy would seek to mothball two battleships, but it had not been known which two would be chosen.

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