HOPING FOR HIGH, HIGH TIDE
Navy pins hopes on tugs, tide
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Dan Nakaso
The Navy this morning was going to make its third attempt to refloat a Pearl Harbor-based guided missile cruiser that ran aground Thursday night just off Honolulu Airport's reef runway.
Hundreds of Navy, Coast Guard, state and contract personnel had already tried twice before to pull the USS Port Royal backward from a sand and rock ledge 17 to 22 feet below the ocean's surface, then pivot the ship back into open water, said Rear Adm. Joseph A. Walsh, deputy commander and chief of staff of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
To reduce weight, crews yesterday were unloading 200 tons of fuel and water and 15 more tons of sailors before bringing in more powerful tow and tug boats to try one more time to dislodge the Port Royal during "high, high tide" at 3:24 this morning, Walsh said.
"From the bow to the stern on the port side she is touching the sand and rock bottom," Walsh told reporters yesterday at Pearl Harbor's "Mike 1" and "Mike 2" piers. " ... The issue becomes how much weight is on the ship versus our ability to pull that weight off the reef."
The image of the 9,600-ton, 567-foot warship stuck and listing starboard just outside its home port has been a national embarrassment to the Navy at a time when thousands of people have been landing at Honolulu Airport for today's National Football League Pro Bowl game, said veteran Honolulu harbor pilot Ed Enos, who served as a Navy Merchant Marine reservist for six years.
"I feel for those guys," Enos said. "It could not have happened at a worse time, just as we're getting this national exposure. These guys don't want to have an accident right outside their home port. Everybody in the Navy is feeling this."
Walsh yesterday would not speculate on what may have caused the USS Port Royal to get stuck — or any possible disciplinary action against its crew or captain, Capt. John Carroll.
"Clearly the ship is not where the ship should have been," Walsh said.
The usual path in and out of Pearl Harbor typically runs at a maximum depth of 42 feet, the Navy said. The "navigational draft" for the Port Royal is 33 feet, the Navy said.
No oil has spilled from the Port Royal and the Coast Guard has set up a 500-foot safety zone around the ship.
The Port Royal ran aground directly north of a spot called "Anchorage Delta," where civilian ships anchor, Enos said. The site is just 'ewa of "Navy Anchorage" where American fighting ships anchor or train in "Navy designated waters," Enos said.
"Those guys do go out there and train in that area all the time," Enos said.
It's normal procedure for American and foreign warships to take aboard a civilian harbor pilot to guide them in and out of Pearl Harbor, Enos said, but the captain of each ship bears the ultimate responsibility for every maneuver.
"Pearl Harbor has its own pilots who are federal, civil service employees," Enos said. "Having them onboard is typical protocol."
The Port Royal had been in drydock for four months for routine maintenance and set sail on Thursday with a crew of 324 sailors and officers for its first day of sea trials.
At the end of the day, the Port Royal began off-loading sailors, civilian contractors and Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard personnel onto small boats when it ran aground "in the normal spot for small boat transfers," Walsh said.
Walsh could not say yesterday what the condition of the sea bottom was.
"We do not believe it is a live reef," Walsh said. "We believe it is a sand and rock bottom."
But he emphasized that the Navy will be responsible for cleaning up after the mishap and would work to restore any reef or sea life that potentially could have been harmed.
"Our priorities have been and remain the safety of the crew, the safety of the ship and the safety of the environment," Walsh said.
The interior and topside areas of the Port Royal sustained no damage. But the Navy believes the ship's sonar dome that extends below the bow and is encased in an 8-inch-thick rubber housing has been flooded with water and "there has been a failure," Walsh said.
He could not say whether the Port Royal might have damaged other critical parts beneath its hull, which include the shaft, propeller and twin sets of struts that stabilize them at the stern.
The mishap left the Port Royal with power but no air conditioning because the cooling water for the air conditioning system was blocked when the ship ran aground, Walsh said.
So half of the Port Royal's crew has been rotating on and off in 24-hour shifts to give the sailors rest in air-conditioned berths, Walsh said.
Removing the sailors also reduced the ship's weight.
Reach Dan Nakaso at email@example.com.