I have had an interest in the subject of the ghost fleet for some time now, but, for some reason, I have never bothered to visit Newport News, Virginia, one of three sites where the ghost fleet(s) are moored. Last week, Dave and I decided we would travel to Fort Eustis, Va. where the ships on the east coast are gathered.
In order to view the ships, one must go onto Fort Eustis unless they have a special pass such as the ones the press gets when they periodically write on the subject. Dave and I tend do do thing spontaneously, so going through the process of getting a special pass was out of the question as far as we were concerned. All we wanted to do was to view the ships from the shore and in order to do that, one must gain entry to Fort Eustis. Not having visited a military base other than Norfolk Naval Base and Fort Lee in Petersburg since 9/11, we really didn't know what to expect in the way of security changes and how these changes might impact visitors visiting the base. Norfolk and Fort Lee were special situations.
We were required to go to a Visitors Center just before reaching the gate where we had to produce a valid drivers license and a registration card for the vehicle. I hadn't given much thought as to what we would say when they asked why we wanted to come onto the base, so when we were asked, we told them we wanted to see the ghost fleet. It was at that moment that security ramifications occurred to me and I was somewhat apprehensive that our reason would not be good enough for us to gain admittance. Apparently, our reason was satisfactory though, and a pass was issued to us that plainly stated the purpose of our visit was to visit the ghost fleet.
As we pulled away from the Visitors Center, we noticed two lines of vehicles being routed under a covering where it was obvious that some kind of visual inspection was being conducted on their vehicles. My first thought was that these inspections were being performed on suspicious vehicles, but I soon realized that all cars exiting the Visitors Center were being routed into one of the lines.
By this time, Dave and I realized that our visit was going to be more complicated than we had realized, so we searched for a way to exit the lines and maybe forget visiting the ghost fleet. Not so fast, my friend. An MP's whistle and motions to join with the other vehicles made it abundantly clear that there would be no exit. We wondered what we had gotten ourselves into.
When it came our time to be inspected, we were told to get out of the van, raise the hood, and stand back from the vehicle. The MP looked in the engine compartment and said it was all right for me to close it and then he proceed to get inside the van and looked under the seats and around the inside of the van. He got into both the front and rear passenger seat areas. Dave later told me he said to the MP, "It's just two old farts who want to see the ghost fleet." I didn't hear Dave say that to the MP, but we were told it was O.K. to proceed so Dave must have told him or he realized we were what Dave described. At any rate, we were on or way. I will make no comments on the quality of the inspection because I don't want to be investigated by our Homeland Security Department.
After we entered the base, we heard several shouts of "Go Carolina" from the troops. As you know, my van is clearly decorated with Carolina lettering and striping, so it wasn't difficult to identify us as being Tar Heels. Also, it was only two days after the National Championship game.
We wandered around for a while but finally found the area on the James River occupied by the Maritime Adm. We had to clear another guard post and finally we were able to view the ghost fleet.
The ships are lined on both sides of a channel in the river and they number today somewhere around 90 ships. At one time the total ships in the fleets numbered over 800 so that would mean that probably around 300 were at Fort Eustis. The other two locations are in Texas and the State of Washington.
The Maritime Administration has a work crew of over 70 employees who go out on the ships every day. Many of the ships are in poor condition so ingenuity is required to keep them afloat. Cement and epoxy type materials are used to patch leaks and you get the feeling it is a losing battle to keep the ships from sinking. In the fifties, the ships were used by the Agriculture Department to store wheat and but no longer. Some have suggested that they be converted to prisons or even manufacturing facilities but, to date, no one has come up with a viable solution to the problem. Up until 1995, some of the ships were sent to India for dismantling but health concerns for the workers have stopped that practice, so other methods must be found. You might remember the furor cause a couple of years ago when 4 ships were sent to England to be dismantled. Again, not so fast, my friend. The British objected strenuously and I don't blame them. I have tried desperately to find out if the ships have been returned or if they are still impounded in England, but I have had no luck. I have found out that the incident has cause this country to find other means of disposal, namely salvage companies in this country. Asbestos and PCBs are the principal problems and the cost of dismantling a single ship is around 1 million dollars. The annual budget for the Maritime Administration is less than 15 million dollars. It costs approximately 1 million dollars a year to maintain the fleet.
One odd thing about the fleet is that one ship has Russian lettering on the side. The reason for this is the ship was used in the movie "Virus." I'm sorry but that is all I can tell you about that since I am not familiar with the movie, when it was made etc. Another oddity is that one ship stands out from all the rest in that it is painted white and has unusual bubbles on the deck. I am told that it is a satellite tracking ship that was used in the Apollo Space Program.
Lastly, I was shocked to learn that ghost fleets go back to 1925. I had always thought the fleet began after the end of World War 11, but apparently they had the same problem after World War 1. Congress periodically tries to give the impression they are going to do something about the fleets but they never authorize the funds to accomplish what they have put into law. I believe the current law says the ships must be moved by the end of '06 but without the funds, how in the world could this possibly be done. There has been some movement lately with American salvage companies and recently, contracts were let for one to be dismantled in Chesapeake, Va. and another in Baltimore. In addition, one was towed to Texas within the last several months.
The principal concern over the ships is that a hurricane will hit the Fort Eustis area and if it does, a catastrophe could result. Tons upon tons of asbestos and PCBs reside on these ships and the sinking of just one of them in the James River would have far reaching effects on the largest estuary in the world. If this happens, our seafood eating habits could change forever. I don't even want to think about the potential the ships hold for terrorists.
I had another little incident I wanted to relate that occurred after we left the base, but it will have to wait until later.
I may take a sabbatical this summer. Yesterday's web site traffic was the lowest it has been for at least two years, maybe more. I have got to come to grips with the fact that I began the web site with the intent of telling some stories about the history of UNC sports. After 4 and one half years, I have told about all the Carolina stories I know, and it is increasingly difficult to find things to write about UNC. Besides there are several other web sites that do a good job of covering current UNC activities, and I have no desire to compete with them