Ferry Island Home Slowly Takes Shape at Mississippi Yard

By JAMES KINSELLA
Gazette Senior Writer

Photo

Pascagoula, Miss. - Machines howl and scream. Bangs, loud and sharp, echo through the steel-frame building. In the shadow under six acres of roof, the tips of welders' torches gleam white hot. The noise is something like a giant dentist's office, or the New York city subway on steroids.

It is a morning in early May inside an aluminum fabrication shop in Pascagoula, Miss. Employees of VT Halter Marine Inc. are working on part of the aluminum superstructure for a vessel now under construction a few miles away at Halter's yard in Moss Point, Miss.

The job number - scrawled on aluminum and steel, written on white magic-marker boards, printed on paper memos and letters, glowing on computer screens - is M287.

Martha's Vineyard residents will come to know M287 as the Steamship Authority ferry Island Home.

Since last spring, Halter has been building the Island Home, a 255-foot, double-ended passenger and vehicle ferry designed to replace the 56-year-old SSA ferry Islander on the Vineyard run. The Island Home is designed to carry 76 vehicles and more than 1,200 passengers.

Photo

At a cost of $30.5 million, the Island Home is by far the most expensive project the boat line has ever undertaken.

Halter has continued work on the ferry despite the arrival last August 29 of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the company's Moss Point and Pascagoula yards, not to mention much of the Gulf Coast.

Damage to equipment in the yards and to the homes of Halter employees has delayed but not deterred construction of the vessel, itself suffering about $7 million in damage.

Halter officials now anticipate delivering the Island Home to the SSA in November, about five months after the ferry originally was scheduled to be delivered.

At present, the steel and aluminum shell of the ferry looms high above the Moss Point yard, a couple of hundred feet from the Escatawpa River, where the vessel is scheduled to be launched July 21.

Halter then will fit out the rest of the vessel. Sea trials with the Coast Guard are scheduled for October, with delivery to the boat line's Fairhaven maintenance facility by Nov. 29.

For Halter employees - working, as usual, in the heat and high humidity of a southern Mississippi spring - the Island Home represents a nice change of pace from the military supply vessels and oil barges that are the yards' usual fare.

Photo

For Boyd E. (Butch) King, the chief executive officer of VT Halter Marine, the Island Home represents a welcome line of commercial work to balance the company's military contracts.

For the Steamship Authority, the Island Home represents a major investment on its highest-volume route, a workhorse designed to carry tens of millions of passengers and millions of vehicles in the decades to come. The Islander lasted more than five decades, and the boat line wants the Island Home to show the same kind of endurance.

To describe the basic construction of the Island Home, SSA director of engineering Carl Walker uses an analogy that will be instantly familiar to millions of Americans who grew up in the last 50 years.

"It's like Lego bricks," he said, referring to the toy plastic interlocking bricks that, in the hands of an imaginative child, can be used to build pretty much anything: a house, a castle, a fire engine - or a ship.

The Island Home - which will weigh 1,630 long tons when finished, and displace 1,950 long tons, or 4.4 million pounds, when fully loaded with passengers and vehicles - is like Lego bricks on a massive scale.

Rather than building up the vessel from a single keel, Halter has been building sections of the vessel at its yard in Pascagoula, then floating the sections on barges along the Pascagoula and Escatawpa rivers to Moss Point, where the sections are off-loaded and added to other sections already in place.

By early May, most of the vessel's superstructure had been assembled, including the Woods Hole-end pilot house. On May 5, cranes lifted another section, an aluminum component of the O-3 deck, into place. The Vineyard Haven-end pilot house already was sitting on the ground nearby, waiting for the O-3 section on which it would be mounted to be completed at Pascagoula and sent over on a barge.

Photo

Project managers Capt. Edward B. Jackson and Laurence O'Rourke of the SSA have been spending much of the past year at the Halter yards, overseeing the Island Home project.

Their Halter counterpart is John Carnley, who is supervising the project for Halter. Mr. King describes Mr. Carnley as the general contractor for the Island Home, the man who is responsible for the construction of the vessel.

Mr. Carnley works with Lon Billings, who supervises the Moss Point yard. Mr. Billings's specialty is the painstaking task of nudging vessels onto the stays along the Escatawpa River and coordinating the welders who ultimately cut the vessels loose for a sidelong splash into the Escatawpa.

Over the months, Captain Jackson has gotten to know Mr. Carnley, Mr. Billings, John Lindsley, who supervises the aluminum fabrication shop at Pascagoula, and other Halter employees throughout the two yards.

"They call me ‘Mr. Ed,'" Captain Jackson said of some of the Halter employees, suspecting it might be an allusion to the talking horse in the old television comedy.

But given the relatively young age of most of the Halter employees, the name is more likely a product of that distinctive Southern mix of formality and informality.

"I think they've done a good job," Captain Jackson said of Halter. "They've suffered greatly with this hurricane. It's been a tough sled. . . . We just hope we don't have another major storm."

Photo

Halter had completed about 35 per cent of the Island Home and was on schedule to deliver the ferry to the boat line this May when a hurricane named Katrina moved into the Gulf of Mexico.

"Our hurricane plan says that when a hurricane enters the Gulf, we start to track it intensely, and that was the Monday before," Mr. King said. "We were watching it, and of course it was forecast to go up the West Florida coast.

"It kept proceeding west - didn't turn - we're watching it more," he said. "On Monday, management made the decision to start shutting down."

Halter laid down its shipyard cranes, took out electrical equipment, and protected what it could protect. By Friday morning, the company had shut everything down.

"By Saturday, we knew we were going to take the left front quadrant, and when you see you're going to take the left front quadrant, you know it's going to be bad," Mr. King said. "We didn't have no idea how bad it was going to be.

"Our problem with Katrina is that she sat out there and built up energy, Saturday and Sunday, and it was a slow-moving storm, and it hit at high tide," he said. "We were told by some people who rode out the storm in a platform supply vessel tied up at our slip that waves were breaking over the top of our building."

The Pascagoula yard is about one mile from the protected water of Mississippi Sound and about 10 miles from the open Gulf.

Photo

"We lost all our cutting machines," Mr. King said, referring to the large machines that cut sheet metal into the shapes that, welded together, form the vessels.

"I called the people who own this company on Tuesday morning and said, ‘Tell me now if you're going to take the money and run, because, if you don't, I'll spend $8 million in two weeks."

"Did you?" a visitor asks.

"I did," Mr. King said.

"We bought new cutting machines. We had to buy 400 new 600-amp welders. We had to buy 200 400-amp welders. I mean, all those things, every piece of rolling stock out there that went under water. The wiring harness is gone. You're going to have to completely rebuild all the electronics in it, or scrap it and build a new one. Cranes and manlifts and forklifts, all those things went under water.

"As we say in the South, there was some slow walking and some sad singing as I walked around the shipyard that day.

"But - the resiliency of these people, of these workers, is just unbelievable," he said. "They showed up the next day. I had about 20 of them coming in. We started cleaning up."

For the two weeks, Halter paid its workers their salaries, whether they came to work or not. Most were back by the second week.

"We ran an extremely liberal policy," Mr. King said. "Folks worked half-days, and I didn't care. We didn't keep track of hours. Rob" - Robert Mullins, Halter's director of estimating and program management - "would have to go home to meet an insurance adjuster or do something. He took off and did it and got his job done, too."

One of Halter's major customers is Crowley, which contracts for the construction of massive fuel barges from the company.

Photo

After the hurricane hit, a Crowley executive got in touch with Mr. King and asked what Halter needed. Gasoline, Mr. King replied.

"We needed gasoline for things like running power washers so we could get seawater off of steel," he said. "Because if you don't, it will rust and corrode in a week."

The next day, Crowley called and said a truck would be arriving at five o'clock with 1,000 gallons of gasoline, with another 1,000 coming the next week.

"And that's the kind of things we did for each other around here," Mr. King said.

Welding machines were the first items needed to get the yards up and running, and Halter ordered accordingly. Next Halter ordered new cutting tables for the Pascagoula yard, where the tables had been completely submerged.

The Halter office, which sits on a hill 16 feet above the Pascagoula yard, was damaged when the building took two feet of water during the storm surge. As a result, Halter executives did all their work for the first month afterward sitting at a picnic table in front of the building. The table has entered Halter lore as "the memorial picnic table."

Following the storm, about 95 per cent of Halter's permanent employees returned to work at the company.

"Those are the people who have roots here, have families here, have kids in school here, that kind of thing," he said. "There were about 390 people we got back in probably within the first 21 days."

Photo

But the contract laborers who had hired out to Halter on a temporary basis were another story. Most of them left the area for other states, where they could get housing as well as work.

"That work force has been slowly building back up," he said. "We hit a plateau at 750, and I just can't get above it. That's why we went out for other solutions, because we have to get these vessels out in the time we promised them."

Those solutions include the same H2B immigration program used by Vineyard businesses to bring in tourism workers. Halter this month was tapping the programs to bring in welders from Mexico.

Although work has resumed in earnest on the vessels under construction, the Halter yards themselves have yet to return fully to their pre-Katrina state.

In early May, torn sheet metal walls still hung off a number of building frames. Of the 17 machines in the machine shop at Moss Point, only one was operable.

When Katrina came roaring out of the Gulf on August 29, the Island Home, structurally built up to the freight deck, was sitting, as it is now, on mounts and railroad wheel carriages in the Moss Point yard a short distance from the Escatawpa River. Halter also had purchased the ship's engines, generators and all its wiring, which had been delivered to Moss Point and were waiting for installation.

Photo

During the storm surge, the water lapped over the edges of the Island Home's freight deck. The water also came to the bottom of the vessel's diesel engines, which had been placed on lifts, and flooded the so-called Navy warehouse toward the rear of the yard, where the vessel's generators and its wiring had been stored.

The storm surge ruined the generators and the wiring, forcing Halter to order replacements. Halter had more luck with the engines: The water had lapped into their pans, but did not go higher. Following the storm, the engines were stripped down and refurbished.

But the possible fate of the Island Home's partially built hull gave Halter the most cause for concern.

"Thank God both ends were open and it didn't float off," Mr. King said. "That would have been our greatest fear, if it had gotten knocked off. You notice where it is, up on those mounts. Then, trying to get it back up, we probably would have had to cut it in pieces and start over."

Mr. King and Mr. Mullins said Katrina, in fact, could have gotten hold of the Island Home and dropped the vessel elsewhere.

That is what happened to two U.S. Army landing supply vessels, or LSVs, built by Halter, which were tied to the dock. All of the vessels' four anchors were out in the Escatawpa River to withstand a Category Five hurricane. The two vessels also were tied to each other with a cable.

When Mr. King and other Halter workers arrived at the yard Tuesday, they could not find the vessels. Finally, they spotted the vessels in the pine woods on the other side of the shipyard.

Photo

"We had to dig a 60-foot-wide, 10-foot-deep, 1,000-foot trench to get them out," Mr. King said.

In contrast, because structural work on the Island Home was not further along, Katrina's date of arrival worked in the vessel's favor.

"The water ran in it, rather than lifting it," Mr. King said.

"We just didn't get enough water to float it," Mr. Mullins said.

Halter workers cleaned the inside of the vessel where the seawater had run. The company also took a $250,000 insurance deductible for damage to the vessel, as it did with each of the other damaged vessels.

Halter has put in an insurance claim for about $7 million on the Island Home. The company has been negotiating the final award with its insurer.

Captain Jackson said the entire Katrina episode has proven the worth of the insistence by Mr. Walker, the SSA director of engineering, that the Island Home be a turnkey operation. The contractor, in this case Halter, is responsible for delivering the entire vessel at the agreed-upon price.

Mr. King, however, still anticipates that Halter will make a profit on the construction of the Island Home: not as large as planned, thanks to Katrina, but a profit nonetheless.

Photo

"I'm going to brag about this vessel for a long time," Mr. King said, "because of the complexity of it, because of the service it's going to perform, the way it's going to perform. We'll probably be flying people up there with Captain Ed to show them that vessel, as I'm trying to sell other people vessels."

Tim Cook, steel superintendent at the Moss Point yard, talks about the Island Home this way: "A new vessel is a task, and I got a lot of guys, they like a challenge, and they enjoy putting out a vessel that everyone is going to see.

"You're going to have millions of folks who go on this vessel, and these guys are proud of stuff like that," Mr. Cook said. "They'll be able to tell their kids and their grandkids, ‘I worked on that boat right there.'"