Port Tampa Bay businesses pitch in to maintain SS 'American Victory'
By Howard Altman, Tampa Bay Times Staff Writer
At 71, the SS American Victory is in pretty good shape. But the cargo ship that saw service during World War II, Korea and Vietnam needs some of the upkeep required with age.
So with puffs of black smoke from the stacks of tugboats Endeavor and Suwanee River, American Victory — now a floating museum dedicated to maritime memories — was pulled from her mooring behind the Florida Aquarium earlier this month for a trip to Tampa Ship.
It would undergo water blasting, painting and other routine maintenance required by the Coast Guard twice every five years.
But first, the ship had to get there.
It was a short journey, about a mile and a half down Sparkman Channel in Port Tampa Bay. But because the 455-foot-long vessel wasn't using its own engines, the powerful tugs had to nudge it along ever so slowly.
"About 2 knots," said pilot Allen Lindsey, standing on the bridge deck, speaking to the two tug captains over the radio. At 2.3 mph, American Victory moved about half the speed of most tug-assisted transits and about 33 percent slower than the average human walking pace.
There was an urgency to this endeavor. A haunted ship adventure is scheduled to open Friday and there is a cruise Dec. 3 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.
The dry dock has its own deadlines, too — a paying customer is due next week.
Many of those taking part in the project are working for free or at a deep discount. Dry docks and tug companies take turns doing the charity work whenever maintenance is required.
"We are fierce competitors," said Norman Atkins, director of operations for Tampa Marine Towing, which owns the tugboat Endeavor. "But there are certain things we take the gloves off for and make happen for the port. There is a lot of history behind that particular ship, and because of who they are and who operates the American Victory, we are willing to participate like other vendors to help as a courtesy."
Shortly after 8 a.m. on a steamy Monday in mid-September, the dock opera started.
• • •
World War II was raging and the United States needed to move troops and supplies when the idea behind the American Victory was developed.
In 1943, the U.S. Maritime Commission needed ships that could be built quickly, cheaply and in quantity to get cargo past German U-boats, according to the National Park Service.
Each Victory ship cost about $2.5 million. More than 530 were delivered.
The SS American Victory was delivered to the U.S. War Shipping Administration by the California Shipbuilding Yard on May 24, 1945, according to the museum webpage.
After serving in World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam wars, the ship went through a $2.5 million restoration in June 1985. In October 1996, John C. Timmel, an influential Tampa harbor captain, learned the ship would be scrapped if not taken for a memorial.
Timmel decided to bring the ship to Tampa and renovate it.
"I remember docking it at dry dock at the shipyard," Timmel said at an awards ceremony two years ago. "We looked at each other and said, 'Now what are going to do?' "
Timmel capitalized on the contagious spirit of the project to leverage 80,000 volunteer hours and $3.5 million for the passenger-ready floating museum that emerged in 2003.
Now, the American Victory, according to the museum website, is one of just three fully functioning ships of its kind.
• • •
A half-hour after the three ships left their mooring, Allen Lindsey, the pilot, Bill Kuzmick, the museum's president, and Tom Procopio, its operations manager, were busy on the bridge deck, working radios to synch cargo ship and tugs.
To the left, or port side, was the working harbor as the ships passed Gulf Marine Repair, the Argo Cement docks and the Citgo gas terminal. On the other side rose the orange terra cotta roof tiles of Harbour Island.
As Lindsey spoke with the tugs, Kuzmick took a moment to talk about American Victory.
Aside from its role as a floating museum, the ship is used for training by first responders, law enforcement officers and commandos, he said. The vessel was recently approved for overnight trips by the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps, whose young members can sleep in bunks beside graffiti from the Vietnam War.
• • •
The Victory ships left enduring memories for those who sailed them.
"These ships were amazing," says Frank Bose, American Victory's security officer and one of dozens who volunteer their time to keep the ship running.
Now 67 and living in Inverness, the cigar-chomping Bose looks like the Hollywood prototype of a grizzled ex-New York City cop. Which is what he is.
But in 1966, before his 16th birthday, Bose joined the U.S. Merchant Marines, the fleet that carries imports and exports during peacetime and becomes a naval auxiliary during wartime. He sailed on Victory ships delivering ammunition to Vietnam.
It was thrilling, dangerous and, at times, frustrating, he said. During one trip in 1967, Bose's ship navigated Typhoon Gilda.
"There were 30- to 40-foot swells and the ship was doing 30-degree rolls," he said. "It rolled so hard the toilet water poured out."
That year was Bose's last aboard the ships.
"We were sailing up the Saigon River and we were being shot at by the Viet Cong. I got so frustrated at not being able to shoot back that I joined the Marines."
• • •
By 8:45 a.m., the real action began.
The three ships stop just south of Tampa Ship's Dry Dock 2.
With bursts of speed, the Endeavor and Suwanee River scooted from the port to the starboard (right) sides of the American Victory to begin, essentially, a parallel parking maneuver, backing the ship into the dry dock.
"Endeavor, give us stern way now, we are almost at the exact right angle now," Lindsey said on the radio as he leaned over the railing for a better view. "We're backing into the slip right now."
For the next several minutes, the mood on the bridge deck was intense as Lindsey choreographed what turned out to be a smooth entry.
"Slow is great," Lindsey said.
• • •
At 9:20 a.m., the American Victory settled into the space where it would spend the next week.
Several hours later, all the water would be pumped out of the dry dock and the ship would rest on blocks.
"Right now, I am watching them on the second phase of scraping and pressure washing the entire hull, cleaning it of barnacles and sea stuff that accumulates" Procopio said later.
That's just part of the process required by the Coast Guard. After the cleaning would come a fresh coat of paint, then engineering room maintenance, testing of sea valves and the hull, and inspection of the fuel tanks.
All told, the work would cost about $150,000, Procopio said — less than it would have without the help of the port community.
All this work is designed to allow the American Victory to continue plying Tampa Bay. But the museum's chairman has a greater journey in mind.
"We are talking about sailing into Normandy for the 75th anniversary of D-Day," says James "Hondo" Geurts.
The anniversary is four years and a lot of hard work away. But big endeavors are nothing new for Geurts. His day job is head of acquisitions for U.S. Special Operations Command.
"It is a challenging goal," Geurts said. "But based on the great cooperation we have seen thus far from the Tampa Bay community, it is not an unreachable goal."
Contact Howard Altman at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.
c. 2016 Tampa Bay Times