Friday, December 02, 2005

 

Getting the Slater shipshape

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Times Union
By Marc Parry
November 29, 2005

Crew of volunteers ready to continue restoration work on vintage warship over winter

ALBANY -- If your morning commute leads over the Dunn Memorial Bridge, sometime this week you should notice a gap in the familiar landscape.

The USS Slater, closed to tourists for the season as of Monday, is expected to disappear from its Albany berth.

Ever wonder what happens to the ship now?

What happens is the ship's restoration continues. Soon, the stable of volunteers that care for the destroyer escort will come aboard to chip away peeling layers of paint, rebuild old rooms and warm their often aging bones over coffee in the chief petty officers' quarters.

The Slater migrates south for the winter, but not far. As early as this morning two volunteer tugboats will nudge the World War II-era ship to a Rensselaer dock next to a scrap yard maybe a mile down the Hudson River. The tugs turn her around before the trip starts.

"Which is very nice of them," said Les Beauchaine of Albany, a volunteer who served on a ship similar to the Slater in World War II. "Because it looks kind of bad going down the river backwards."

The 80-year-old joined the emotional crowd of destroyer escort veterans at the Port of Albany for the 1997 ceremony welcoming the ship here, her final berth. Veterans remembered kamikaze attacks and Nazi submarines. Officials hoped the floating museum, the last ship of its kind afloat in the U.S., would help anchor a rejuvenated waterfront.

Sunday, this season's final tourists trickled over the gangway.

They saw the long-range cannons and depth-charge rack, the arsenal of a vessel designed to counter the German submarine threat. They breathed the paint-and-oil smell that brings back memories for some guys who take Beauchaine's tours. They listened to Morse code beeping in the radio room.

"The technology was amazing," said John Ekmalian, 35, a Loudonville resident who enjoys watching war movies with his father-in-law and came to see the Slater on Sunday. "Tubes.

Radio tubes! You don't hear that no more."

The winter's major projects take place beyond the pristine rooms open to visitors like Ekmalian.

Places like the chief's head. To reach that bathroom, Beauchaine wheeled open a watertight door. The room felt about 20 degrees colder than the rest of the ship. A toilet sat connected to nothing. Paint seemed to peel from everything.

The volunteers will chip the paint off the bulkheads, the overhead, the pipes. Then they'll paint them fresh.

"They do all the work," said Eric Rivet, 26, the museum's education coordinator, referring to the 100-plus volunteers. "We stay out of the way."

They'll start once the tugboats push her to Rensselaer.

The call usually comes early in the morning. The S.S. Pinafore, says the tugboat company guy, is ready to sail! Get your butt down here! The volunteers pull the gangway, disconnect the electric wires that power the boat from the shore, and raise the U.S. flag.

The reason she needs to move boils down to three letters: ice.

Six-foot wooden blocks called camels hold the Slater 24 feet from the dock. The danger is that ice could build up between the ship and the dock. And if that happened the ship could yank the dock into the river.

"And that," Beauchaine said, "would make Mayor Jennings very upset."

Parry can be reached at 454-5057 or by e-mail at mparry@timesunion.com.


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