Dry Docking and Undocking


A great sense of relief accompanied my reporting to the Brooklyn Navy Yard on 5 May 1947 and soon thereafter receiving a document that was signed on 7 July 1947 by Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal. The document was my appointment as an engineering duty officer. Per The Regulations of the U.S. Navy, “Officers designated for engineering duty shall not succeed to command except on shore and then only as authorized by the Secretary of the Navy.”

The War Within the War about whether or not I could be forced to be a ship’s command duty officer at sea or in port, was officially over. However there were new challenges. I had to learn how to ride a motor scooter and become certified as a dry-dock officer. While neither was life threatening they both imposed vexing experiences.

A tall warrant officer from Texas volunteered to teach me how to ride a scooter. He got on his and quickly draweled, “This foot lever is the starter, rotate this hand grip to give it gas, and the hand grip on the other side is the brake.”

Within the next second he sped off like a shot as he yelled over his shoulder, “Follow me!”

A few days and a few spills later, due to the Yard’s railroad tracks on rainy days, I became as adept as the Texan.

Regarding the second challenge, later in 1947 the Production Officer decreed that all ship superintendents were required to dry-dock their own vessels. Thus for each craft assigned to me, in addition to being the liaison between its crew and the yard’s civilian supervision regarding overhaul progress and related other matters, I would have to direct its docking and undocking. When an incoming ship’s bow reached the sill of a dry dock, responsibility for its movement was transferred from the harbor pilot to the docking officer. Thereafter positioning and safely landing the ship on the custom shaped and positioned wood blocks were the docking officer’s responsibilities.

After serving as an assistant to a certified docking officer for docking an aircraft carrier and a battleship, just after mid winter I was certified and then assigned to direct the dry docking of a simple flat-bottomed barge as my first challenge on my own. Nothing else could be easier. The wood barge was probably built two decades before and Dry Dock No. 1, constructed of granite in the 1840s, was designated. The dock’s caisson was relatively small and thus easy for the civilian workers to handle. I was confidence personified.
When the caisson was in place and the barge accurately positioned I gave the order to pump out the dock. Before reaching the level that would assure me that the barge was indeed seated on the blocks, the barge began to tilt. I immediately ordered, “Stop pumping!” Investigation disclosed that when the Navy tug brought the barge from the New Jersey shore, its skipper was showing off to his crew by purposely hitting ice floes that came down the Hudson River. Some had lodged beneath the barge and were still there during my initial dry-docking attempt. A number of bottom planks were damaged. Regardless of the fact that I was not responsible, I was the target of much good-natured razzing from the other ship superintendents.

I was next assigned an undocking that was also supposed to be relatively simple, but instead turned out to be a significant challenge. On a miserable day, characterized by constant sleet, two World War II vessels from the reserve fleet, one a landing ship (LST) and the other a 173-foot submarine chaser (PC), occupying the same dock were scheduled to be undocked. My calculations indicated that the LST would be waterborne first and just before that condition was achieved, I gave the order to stop flooding. I then asked the officer in charge (OinC) of the temporary LST crew to inspect all bottom compartments and to advise me if there was any leakage. When he replied that all of the compartments were dry I resumed flooding and turned my attention to the PC.

Just before the PC became waterborne I again gave the order to stop flooding and received a report from the PC’s OinC that all interior compartments were dry. Immediately I ordered the resumption of flooding, withdrawal of the bilge blocks from the PC hull, and removal of all guides that had served for positioning the ships during their docking. On account of the cold and wet weather the civilian riggers in my charge, anxious to get to a warm and dry place, responded with unprecedented speed. Both vessels were manifestly afloat within a few minutes and wind gusts immediately shifted them from their docking positions. Just then the LST OinC appeared on deck frantically shouting that he had significant flooding in one engine room!

Because the LST had a wide flat bottom setting it down again on its blocks was no problem. However the streamlined underwater shape of the PC required that it be exactly positioned on its keel blocks so that the custom-shaped bilge blocks would render sufficient lateral support when they were pulled into place. If not properly supported laterally the PC could fall on its side. And, if the bilge blocks did not render their support on hull frames the relatively thin PC hull plating could be crushed. Furthermore, all of the chalk marks that were laid out around the dock that showed where to place the guides for repositioning the ships, had been washed away by the sleet. A few tense moments followed, but I judged correctly and safely reset the PC on its blocks.

Next, with a few unkind thoughts in mind, I turned my attention to the OinC of the LST who made the late flooding report. Investigation disclosed that he was not at fault.

Some time in the past a Reserve Fleet watchman discovered a leak in the LST’s bottom plating probably due to active corrosion around a bit of slag. Slag inclusion was not an unusual for wartime produced steel plate. As a remedial measure, someone drove a hardwood peg into the hole and successfully stopped the leak but at the same time enlarged the hole to about one-inch in diameter. The tapered plug projected beneath the ship’s bottom. That temporary fix was not recorded and thus didn’t appear in any list of requested repairs.

When the LST was docked it was the miserable luck of all of us involved, on that miserable day, that the plug projecting from the ship’s bottom had, during docking, landed directly on the center of a bottom block. The plug was thus pushed into the ships bilge and the softwood cap on the block maintained a watertight seal until the ship again became waterborne during undocking.

Those experiences left me wondering why such goofy events seemed to happen only to me.


Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo