Perseverance prevails, as tugs wiggle Intrepid free of mud

For the tugboat industry, it’s one of the most famous towing operations in years. Yet it almost didn’t happen–twice.

On Dec. 5, McAllister Towing and Transportation Co. successfully delivered the historic USS Intrepid to dry dock in Bayonne, N.J. For the previous 24 years, the World War II-era aircraft carrier had rested at Pier 86 in Manhattan as part of a museum.

The towing operation came a month after the original and much-ballyhooed effort, which failed because Intrepid became mired in the Hudson River mud and barely budged. The failure of that effort on Nov. 6 -following speeches by dignitaries – forced the cancellation of celebrations, including fireworks at Bayonne.

An inspection revealed that the initial dredging operation, which removed silt from around Pier 86, was insufficient. Six tugboats – with a combined 30,000 horsepower – were able to move the 900-foot ship only about 15 feet before Intrepid’s propellers lodged in the sediment and stuck fast.

In response, a much larger dredging operation was undertaken with the help of the U.S. Navy.

The tractor tug crews assembled again on the morning of Dec. 5, with tides high and wind conditions favorable. For the first 20 minutes, it was deja vu.

“First my heart was just pounding,” said McAllister Assistant Pilot Brian Fournier. “She slid out of the pier the initial 15 feet, and she just stopped. She was stuck, and everybody said, ˜Here we go again.'”

They were about to abandon the second effort when Chief Docking Pilot Capt. Jeffrey McAllister decided to try a different maneuver with his four tugboats on duty that day.

The original Dec. 5 plan called for the 6,500-horsepower Christine McAllister to pull Intrepid’s stern straight back, with the 4,500-hp Rowan M. McAllister pulling on the stern at an angle. The 4,700-hp Vicki M. McAllister pushed on the starboard bow, with the 4,000-hp Robert E. McAllister standing by and waiting for enough space to get into the port quarter to begin pushing.

When Intrepid became stuck again, Capt. McAllister decided to move Robert around to a pulling position along with Christine and Rowan. The Robert crew spooled out 300 feet of line from its bow winch and began to tug.

“With the Robert going from a push to a parallel pull, that’s what really got the ship going,” Fournier said. “They wiggled and wiggled, and pulled and pulled. When that ship broke free, there were cheers of jubilation.”

Then came the easy part. The tugs guided Intrepid, a behemoth displacing 27,000 tons, slowly on the 5-mile tow down the Hudson River. When the flotilla passed the World Trade Center site, a giant American flag was unfurled aboard Intrepid.

The crews waited for slack tide before proceeding into the Bayonne Dry Dock & Repair Corp. shipyard.

Intrepid will undergo a two-year, $60-million overhaul. Pier 86 itself – home of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum – will be rebuilt during the ship’s absence.

“It is our mission to honor our heroes, educate the public and inspire our youth about the price of freedom,” said Bill White, the museum’s president. “We look forward to continuing her mission as the Intrepid embarks on another chapter in her extraordinary history.”

An Essex-class aircraft carrier launched in 1943, Intrepid was a bastion in the sea war against Japan during World War II. It survived multiple kamikaze attacks in the Pacific. A total of 270 crewmen were killed.

The Navy called the ship the “Fighting I,” while the Japanese dubbed it “The Ghost Ship.” Intrepid played a major role in history’s largest combined naval battle – the Battle for Leyte Gulf and the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea.

Intrepid was also used during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. It was an active Navy vessel until 1974. Pier 86, on Manhattan’s West Side, was the decommissioned ship’s home since 1982.

Before the November towing operation 15,000 cubic yards of material had been dredged along the ship’s berth. Museum officials hoped the 35-foot-deep trench would be enough to float Intrepid, which no longer generates its own power. Tons of ballast water was also removed to increase buoyancy.

U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had already delivered the ceremonial castoff remarks before the morning tow effort when it became obvious that the ship was stuck. Intrepid had also been scheduled to make brief calls at Ground Zero, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

The premature end to that move disappointed about 40 Navy veterans, who had served aboard the aircraft carrier during World War II and the Vietnam era. They had been invited to sail aboard the ship during the tow.

After the failed attempt, divers and a U.S. Navy salvage team inspected the bottom around the stuck ship. The Navy agreed to undertake a new $3 million dredging operation, under a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. They removed an additional 39,000 cubic yards of material.

Many of the veterans who were saddened Nov. 6 were aboard again for the successful Dec. 5 tow.

McAllister Towing, based in New York, was paid for the first attempt but didn’t charge the museum for the second try.

“It was an honor,” Fournier said.

By Professional Mariner Staff