The City of Ships

Some twenty or so years ago there were thirty active naval shipbuilders in the U.S. – now there are about six. When we speak of naval shipbuilders we’re referring to those shipyards with the capacity to build sizeable vessels – and not just ferry boats, tugs and offshore service boat types.

That’s sad. There are dozens and dozens of smaller yards, of course, but technically speaking, those are boatyards not shipyards. For all practical purposes we threw in the towel years ago and sat on our hands while overseas countries cashed in on what has always been the key to economic growth. That wise saying, “Whoever builds ships, builds worlds”, is as true today as it has been for eons.

We’ve written about the great shipyards in Quincy, Brooklyn and Mare Island, and the smaller – but great nevertheless – shipyards like the one in Hingham, Mass. and the Oregon Shipbuilding Corp. But those are just ancient history now. U.S. shipyards, and the men and women who launched the world’s 20th century economies from within those shipyards, made Helen of Troy look like a piker.

Bath Iron Works in Maine was another of our smaller yards that achieved greatness in those war years. One of the earliest U.S. yards, BIW is still producing warships for the Navy. Fairly sizeable ones, too. The Arleigh Burke- class “Aegis” DDGs are more than 500 feet in length with a beam of almost 70 feet, and BIW has turned out more than a dozen such vessels.

Even larger is the Amphibious Assault vessel design known as LPDs. BIW is slated to build every third such ship in an as-yet undetermined total, and the dimensions of this class vessel will be 684 feet in length by 105 feet at the beam.

That a small yard like BIW can turn out warships of these impressive dimensions is indeed something to brag about. But those aren’t the largest ships the yard has ever built. At 720 feet in length and 100 feet at the beam, the container ship “Maui”, launched in the late 70s, is the largest vessel ever built in a Maine shipyard.

Here’s something to consider. That small, but very capable, shipyard in Maine depends upon the state’s elected representatives to acquire Naval shipbuilding contracts in order to keep its doors open. But in today’s tailspinning economy no one can say how long it will be before that spigot is turned off. You can go to the well just so often.

“Aegis”- class DDGs are among the world’s most complex vessels – and among the world’s most useless. Conventionally-built container ships, also useless, are now being laid-up and will never again function as intended. Those box ships will soon be sold to scrap yards. All of them.

BIW could be turning out dozens of our patented container ships every year. Inactive U.S. shipyards, capable of building thousands more, are just biding time – just waiting to be activated by President Obama, the one who has the authority to initiate an FDR-type Emergency Shipbuilding Program. And wouldn’t 50 million new jobs be the best way to “ease the burden of laid-off workers”?