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Ship Shape

Ship Maintenance LLC keeps Middle Loch's mothball fleet spic and span

Ship Shape
A Ship Maintenance worker does some routine maintenance on one of the company’s barges.
Karin Kovalsky

ON A SLIGHTLY OVERCAST WINTER DAY, the waters of Pearl Harbor’s Middle Loch are calm (almost tabletop flat), the morning sea breezes are cool and the sound of traffic from faraway H-1 Freeway is a distant buzz. Throw in a white-sand shoreline and a couple of beach umbrellas and you’d have a tourist board definition of the tranquil tropics.

But Victor Gautier knows that the mild conditions at Middle Loch can be deceiving. Gautier is the project manager and chief operating officer of Ship Maintenance LLC, and he and his company are the custodians of the U.S. Navy’s mothball fleet, which sits idle in the Loch’s gentle waters. From a distance, many of the nearly two-dozen decommissioned warships still look sleek and ready for battle, and it’s Gautier’s job to keep them that way. It isn’t easy.

“The elements are brutal - the salt, the sun. These ships are all metal, so they need constant upkeep,” says Gautier over the growl of a water taxi’s beefy inboard engine. “As soon as they bring them here things start to degrade, and we have to get to work. If you don’t stay on top of things, there’ll be paint chips everywhere.”

Ship Maintenance operates the Inactive Ships Facility, a government-owned facility on the western shore of the Loch. Established in 1945, the complex received its first ships a year later, decommissioned veterans of World War II, which were berthed and eventually sunk or sold for scrap. Today, its 14 berths, each of which can accommodate four ships, are home to non-nuclear warships, submarines, floating dry-docks and service craft with drafts of 30 feet or less.

This mothball fleet is divided into seven different categories, including retention assets (ships that can be reactivated in case of need), foreign military sale, scrap metal sale and something called SINKEX, in which ships are stripped of all useful equipment, environmentally cleaned and eventually sunk during military exercises.

The 78-person Ship Maintenance processes an average of four ships a year, each approximately 30 years old, the usual retirement age for a U.S. Navy warship. The company provides an average of four ships for sinking, mainly for the RIMPAC joint fleet exercises held in the waters outside of Hawaii every two years. It also maintains a handful of retention ships, which are cleaned and sealed up, completely preserved as if they were brand new. If called up, these ships can be re-outfitted and ready for service in as short a time as six months. However, a retention ship hasn’t been reactivated since the first Gulf War.

Ship Maintenance, which late last year renewed a five-year contract with the U.S. Navy, earns about $8 million in revenue a year, about $5 million from its cleanup and retention activities and another $3 million to $4 million for the removal and/or sale of equipment to other U.S. Navy entities or foreign buyers.

SAFE HARBOR: Ship Maintenance project manager and chief operating officer Victor Gautier under the clear skies and near the calm waters of Middle Loch.
photo: Karin Kovalsky

It costs about $1.5 million to clean up a warship like the 8,280-ton, 563-foot USS Fletcher, a Spruance-class destroyer, which is tied up next to her sister ship, the USS Cushing. The clean up of the Fletcher is taking a crew of 30 about six months to complete.

Whatever the category, processing a ship is a dirty and difficult job. Before a ship is sent to Middle Loch - from Pearl Harbor, Japan or San Diego - 90 percent of its fuel oil is drained. For a destroyer like the Fletcher, which can hold as much as 2 million gallons of oil, there is still a lot of grease to cleanup. And it is the worst kind of grease.

“It’s 10 percent, but it’s the 10 percent that has been at the bottom of the tank for 30 years,” says Gautier. “We take all of it out and the most of the time, you can’t recycle it. If that is the case we have to send it for processing, which costs an arm and a leg, about three or four dollars per gallon.”

The cleanup is thorough. According to Gautier, his ships’ engines and pumps are so spic and span that when they are sunk there is no visible oil left behind anywhere. Indeed, a finger test inside a recently cleaned engine reveals no more grease than you might find on a newly washed kitchen skillet.

In addition to the degreasing, Gautier’s staff remove all floatable items and much of the usable equipment, with sensitive items and guns and missile launchers being the priority. However, often - especially with older vessels - a lot goes down with the ship. “They pay us to take this stuff off, and it can be big bucks,” says Gautier in one of the lower decks of the Fletcher. “This ship’s turbine engines are worth millions, but a lot of the newer ships can’t use them. In addition, there’s a lot of brass and copper here, but if no one wants it, it goes down.”

Remarkably, even though the work involves the use of heavy equipment and powerful solvents, Ship Maintenance boasts a safety record that is almost as spotless as its cleaned-up equipment. According to Gautier, interviewed in early December, Ship Maintenance hadn’t had a safety-related work stoppage in 414 days. Previous to that day, it had been six years since his crew had a significant injury on the job. As a result, Ship Maintenance, previously known as Pacific Shipyards International, has won a slew of awards, including a 2006 Excellence in Safety and Health honor presented by Gov. Linda Lingle and a 2006 Hawaii Business Small Business Success Award.

Gautier is expecting steady business for the next five years, but it will hardly be smooth sailing ahead. With the continuing war in Iraq, he is anticipating some major cuts in future Defense Department budgets. However, there is one customer looming over the horizon, the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk.

“The Kitty Hawk is getting decommissioned next year [2008] and there isn’t any room for her at any of the other facilities,” says Gautier. “She runs about 34 or 35 feet. We’d have to do a little dredging, but we could make room for her.”


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Hawaii Business,January