Swiftsure ready for a new deck

Lightship No. 83 "Swiftsure" in drydock last summer

Lightship No. 83 “Swiftsure” in drydock last summer (Photo courtesy Northwest Seaport)

There was a full house in Seattle Friday night at The Center for Wooden Boat’s Boathouse on South Lake Union for Nathaniel Howe’s talk on the ongoing restoration of Lightship 83 “Swiftsure” by local nonprofit Northwest Seaport.

Howe, the vessel manager and a naval archaeologist, spoke in front of a crowd of around 60 people on a presentation entitled “91 days in the shipyard,” ostensibly covering the major half-million dollar, three-month haulout the vessel underwent last summer for hull inspection, repair, painting, and the removal of her rotting decks. Along the way, other unexpected problems popped up, as they are wont to do during haulouts of large ships and small.

But it was as much a history lesson as a talk on the restoration of Lightship 83 herself. Howe, well-versed in historical ship-building practices and a regular on the lecture circuit, didn’t just discuss what is being done to refurbish the ship currently, but what has been done with her in the past, how she was originally built, how lightships in general evolved and were constructed and operated, and tied together all those factors in a cogent explanation of how 83 arrived where she is today and what will happen with her next.

Open frames exposed beneath the deck of the lightship Swiftsure in Seattle with deck removed

The current state of Swiftsure’s deck under that tent: missing!

If you’ve been by Swiftsure recently, you already knew something significant is going on … she’s missing her decking almost entirely under that opaque tent. Long bundles of drying Olympic Peninsula Douglas fir (“choice stuff,” says Howe) are stacked and waiting to be turned into a new deck.

That process will begin in 12 days, using largely volunteer labor (interested in swinging a caulking mallet? contact Northwest Seaport for more information!).

Before that process could begin, much more preparation had to be done. Howe said that the organization had learned much from the failed attempts at preserving the schooner Wawona. “Wood ships will die from the top down in the Pacific Northwest,” he said from painful experience. But Wawona’s death had not been without value; Northwest Seaport had learned “… where the first chinks will appear,” Howe said, and 83’s house and decks were those chinks.

Unlike some previous efforts with other vessels, the dismantling and rebuilding of Swiftsure has been remarkably systematic. Howe and his team have painstakingly mapped out the interior and systems along the way. The ship was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1989, and her destiny is to serve as a museum of her kind, and Howe is determined to get things right, both on the historical and construction fronts. There are 17 lightships left in the United States, seven of which are museums. Swiftsure will be the eighth, and the only one with her original steam engine still intact.

The haulout in 2013 was the first in 16 years and provided the best opportunity to inspect and repair her hull and conduct internal remediation work since the vessel left active service in 1961. Nearly 30 years of service-related upgrades, migrating from oil lamp beacons to diesel-generator powered lights, left a hull rife with hazardous materials, all of which needed to be removed to safely work on her in the water down the road.

Any vessel with such a long history is bound to reveal a few surprises when undergoing significantly invasive drydock work, and Swiftsure was no exception. When removing the decking and cleaning her out, crews found boxes of .45 pistol holsters, .50-caliber ammunition link loaders, and part of a depth-charge launching system still installed … remnants of her commandeered Navy career during WWII, when all navigation marks were extinguished and the lightships put to work conducting anti-submarine patrols along both coasts.

Less interesting, and more dangerous, surprises were also in store. Severe crevice corrosion was found along the garboard strake, and one morning Howe got a frantic call from workers scraping and repairing the damage.

“Do you have a piping diagram?” they wanted to know. One particular crevice had gone all the way through, and began to leak oil. No one was sure where it was coming from.

Investigation revealed that the leak was below a center tank which still had six to seven inches of oil in it. This prompted a closer look at the other various tanks aboard; it developed that, far from being clean and empty after her decommissioning, Swiftsure still had nearly 5,000 gallons of diesel and bunker oil aboard in her rusting tanks, a few rusty inches away from a major environmental catastrophe. A major sub-project had to be launched to pump out, scrape and clean all the tanks, as well as patching the hull before she could go back in the water. A shiny new paint job topped off the drydock work.

Now, back at her berth at the Historic Ships Wharf at South Lake Union Park, Swiftsure has been partially opened to the public again for the first time in years. Northwest Seaport intends to keep the current temporary catwalks over her open interior in place during the deck rebuild so visitors can watch the work in progress. The job is expected to take well into 2015 to complete.

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