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Colorful Launch of Latest T-AKE Class Ship Anchors Nassco’s Reputation

San Diego’s status as one of the last bastions of shipbuilding in the nation was solidified last week when the USNS Richard E. Byrd was launched from the Nassco shipyard on San Diego Bay.

The 84-acre yard off Harbor Drive south of the San Diego-Coronado Bridge was ablaze with fireworks and fanfare May 15 as the 41,000-ton T-AKE class ship slid down rails into the bay.

It’s the fourth such cargo ship built at Nassco (formerly known as National Steel and Shipbuilding Co.), but certainly not the last. Nassco, a unit of General Dynamics, has a $2.8 billion contract to deliver nine such ships, with options to build three more.

Last year, the company delivered three large cargo ships, two for the Navy and a much larger double-hulled oil tanker to BP Shipping of Alaska. This year, it will deliver three of the T-AKE class ships to the Navy, while working on additional cargo ships and the first of nine ships that carry petroleum and chemicals for U.S. Shipping Partners of New Jersey.

“We have a lot of work for Nassco’s future that carries us well into the next decade,” said Karl Johnson, Nassco’s director of communications.

The backlog that now is at 16 ships has helped push employment at the yard from 3,600 people at the end of 2003 to 4,600 at the end of last year.

Johnson said there’s a bit more than that today. And counting all the subcontractors, temporary workers and customer representatives, “There’s maybe about 5,600 people working at Nassco on a day- to-day basis.”


Taking On Plenty Of Work

The T-AKE contract that Nassco won in the fall of 2001 for two ships and $709 million is expected to lead to even more ships due to a change in the way the Navy contracts for such work, according to industry sources.

The U.S. Shipping contract awarded in August for nine commercial tankers could yield $1 billion in revenue. The contract includes options for five more ships.

GD doesn’t break out Nassco’s annual revenue, but its three yards (the others are in Maine and Connecticut) had sales of $4.9 billion in 2006.

Supplementing the shipbuilding is Nassco’s status as one of the few remaining yards where these large vessels are repaired.

“Nassco is one of six shipyards in the United States that builds and repairs Navy ships, and it’s the only major shipbuilder left on the West Coast,” said Nassco Chief Executive Officer Fred Harris to several hundred attending the launch of the Byrd.

As Nassco becomes more adept at building the Navy’s supply ships, it’s been able to reduce delivery times, shaving expenses from the government’s bill. The Byrd will be completed 24 weeks faster than the first T-AKE ship, the USNS Lewis and Clark, Harris said. Construction of the 689-foot-long USNS Byrd began in February 2006 and it will be delivered to the Navy in November.

The cost for the Byrd is $288 million.

Because of the accelerated work schedule, the Byrd was 81 percent finished as of last week. At the time the first T-AKE was launched, it was only about half-done.

The Byrd was also much heavier, a fact that forced Nassco’s launch master to notify assembled dignitaries to cut their speeches short, and get on with the ceremonial smashing of the champagne bottle against the bow.

Once the wooden blocks were knocked away and the ship was transferred to rails, it became obvious that the heavier weight required an earlier departure, Johnson said.

“We’re the only shipyard that still launches ships this way (sliding them into the water),” Johnson said.

The other five yards either have ships built at dry docks that are flooded when ready to be put to sea or are pulled out on rails when completed.


Almost Ready For Testing

Only so much work can be done on land. After the bulk of the construction is completed, workers will install such items as electrical systems and the crew’s living quarters. It will then be put through a battery of tests before being delivered to the Navy in November.

About 200 civilian sailors operate the cargo ships, members of the U.S. Merchant Marine, a division of the U.S. Department of Defense. But every ship has about a dozen Navy enlisted officers who supervise the cargo operations, Johnson said.

The ships carry all the provisions, stores, spare parts, water and petroleum needed by the Navy’s fighting strike force at sea and typically carry more than 10,000 tons of weight.

The naming of the fourth cargo ship Richard E. Byrd follows a Navy tradition of selecting a particular theme for each class of craft. A series of nuclear submarines being delivered by Electric Boat, another GD shipbuilder, were named for states, hence the USS Virginia and USS North Carolina.

Famous American explorers is the T-AKE theme, and the preceding ships were named after Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who discovered the Northwest Passage; Sacagawea, the American Indian woman who guided Lewis and Clark; and Alan Shepard, the late astronaut and former Navy officer who was the first American in space.

Byrd, a Medal of Honor recipient, gained fame for his exploration of the Arctic in 1926, and later, of the Antarctica in five expeditions. For the last expedition in 1955, he headed up Operation Deep Freeze, which established permanent U.S. bases on the South Pole.

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