A long sail to retirement for the USS Enterprise

The U.S. Navy flight demonstration team, the Blue Angels, conducts an air show for Sailors and Marines above the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise in this 2010 photo.


By MICHAEL WELLES SHAPIRO | Daily Press | Published: July 29, 2012

Newport News, Va. — After the USS Enterprise is defueled and stripped down at Newport News Shipbuilding as part of its retirement from the Navy fleet, the hulking ship must be towed to the Seattle area, home of the only shipyard capable of disposing its nuclear reactors.

Initially Navy officials had hoped the widening of the Panama Canal in 2014 would allow for a shorter tug for the 50-year-old aircraft carrier.

But after a Navy evaluation of the canal's new lock designs, the ship will likely have to go the long route: around South America and the hard-to-navigate Cape Horn.

"The Panama Canal was evaluated, however the current design and build plans for the locks present obstructions to the carrier flight deck during passage through the canal," the Navy said in an official response to questions from the Daily Press.

A shipping agent with Gateway Transit Limited agreed that the carrier's flat top, which flares out to 257 feet wide, would be problematic.

The agent, John Bamber, who's based in Panama, said that the new locks, scheduled to be complete by late 2014, will allow for passage of ships as long as 1,200 feet long and 160 feet wide, which would seemingly accommodate the 1,123-foot-long ship that's 132 feet wide at the water line.

"I was approached by a couple of people not long ago about trying to get some of these smaller aircraft carriers through the canal that are 130 feet wide at the water line," Bamber said, in an interview via Skype.

But he said the current lock configuration, which is likely to be replicated with the canal widening, presents a problem.

There are two locks — an east lane and a west lane — with a control house in between and lamp posts flanking the length of the locks.

"So something very, very wide like that would just break off those lamp posts," he said.

Inactivating the Enterprise

A Navy process, refered to as inactivation, kicks off with a Dec. 1 ceremony for the country's first nuclear powered carrier in Norfolk, the Big E's home port. Sailors at Naval Station Norfolk will spend the next six months taking equipment off the Newport News-built ship.

At that point the Enterprise will dock at Newport News Shipbuilding, a subsidiary of Huntington Ingalls Industries, for an extensive four-year process, in which the company will drain hydraulic systems, empty tanks, remove hazardous materials, and nearly strip it bare.

"Some of the equipment on Enterprise is going to be reused on other ships in the fleet, some of it will be mothballed, some of it will be put into storage, some of it will be destroyed," Huntington Ingalls president and CEO Mike Petters said in a recent interview.

The shipyard will leave the eight reactors on the ship, however.

"Only Puget Sound Naval Station and Intermediate Maintenance Facility (in Bremerton) has the specialized equipment and expertise to package the reactor compartments for disposal and recycle the rest of the ship," says a Navy fact sheet on the Enterprise's inactivation and decommissioning process.

The eight reactor components won't be junked in Bremerton.

According to a Navy environmental assessment, the four pairs of compartments will be pulled onto barges, taken into the Pacific Ocean and then up the Columbia River, past Portland, Ore., and on to the Department of Energy's Hanford Site in the desert of southeast Washington.

The U.S. government buries nuclear waste in trenches in Hanford, a small town that was cleared out to make way for a World War II-era nuclear production facility.

The long tow to Bremerton

Tugging an aircraft carrier without its own propulsion from Newport News to the Pacific Northwest requires heavy horsepower and a lot of patience, according to shipping and tug company professionals.

"You're not gonna knock any fish out of the water towing a carrier," said Capt. J. Elliott Westall, a retired Navy tug captain and harbor pilot, and general manager and vice president of McAllister Towing's Norfolk office.

Westall, who said he served in battle groups with the Big E, said towing smaller warships from San Francisco to Brownsville, Texas, through the Panama Canal, a much shorter voyage, took his company 54 days.

With the Enterprise, he estimated, "it's gonna be all-ahead snail speed at 31/2, 4 knots … 5 tops," he said. Five knots works out to about 5.75 mph.

Westall called the voyage — which would require accounting for storms, possible refueling of the tugboat, a crew change, and several hard-to-maneuver passages — "a logistical nightmare."

Jonathan Platt, vice president of J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corp., a Tacoma, Wash., yard that builds tugboats, used softer language.

"Going around the horn is always an entertaining trip and, to be honest, it's pretty nasty weather down there usually," Platt said, estimating it would take two large ocean-going tugs to handle the Enterprise.

The cape in particular requires ships and boats to idle for long periods of time until they can pass safely.

It provides narrow windows of opportunity for passage, Westall said.

And for the entirety of the trip, he said, storms have the potential to add days to the tug: "In some cases you're just stemming the seas to try and ride them out, and when it's real bad you have to pull (your tow) to port."

Big tugs

Platt said pulling the Enterprise would probably require two ocean-going tugs – boats that can be up to 170 feet long and 40 feet wide, with at least 10,000 horsepower.

The tugs carry crews of five or six, he said, and "they'll probably leave Newport News, go for 3,000 miles or so, and put a new crew on the boat because that gets to be a really long ride."

"You need big power for a big ship," said Westall. "You're talking 90 tons of bollard horsepower, bubba."

Bollard horsepower measures the towing strength of a tugboat.

And for some company, it could also be a big contract.

The Navy does not have its own "towing vessel capable of safely towing a (nuclear carrier) so it will have to be contracted," said the Navy response to the Daily Press.

Westall said only a few tug companies have the ships to compete for the tow, which is scheduled to happen in 2017. But he predicted the award would be worth big bucks.

Whoever does the work, one thing is for sure, he said — "they're gonna have that picture of the Enterprise in their rear view mirror for a long time."


The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise transits the Atlantic Ocean during a scheduled underway for the tailored ship's training availability in this 2007 photo.