Big move for Laffey nears

Marine surveyor Joe Lombardi is supervising the preparation of the 65-year-old destroyer Laffey for its trip to dry dock for much-needed hull repairs.

MOUNT PLEASANT -- How do you make a famed World War II destroyer with more than 100 plugged leaks seaworthy?

If you're Patriots Point, you plan for every possible problem, pick the highest tide as a moving date and hire a Massachusetts-based expert with a sense of humor to oversee it all.

Standing aboard the Laffey on Wednesday, less than a week away from go-time, marine surveyor Joe Lombardi gave a nod and said in his New England accent, "I think we're good."

The one-man show behind Ocean Technical Services, Lombardi first learned about the destroyer's predicament in December when Patriots Point employees called as water rushed into the warship. He told them he was in the middle of moving, but the next day he was in Charleston preparing a game plan.

In the long months since then, Lombardi evaluated the options for the vessel that had fended off kamikaze attacks, earning recognition as "The Ship That Would Not Die." Turning the Laffey into an artificial reef seemed practical at first, but then Lombardi learned the costs of getting the ship environmentally sound enough to put into the ocean and physically firm enough to be transported so far offshore.

The negligible difference between reefing the ship and keeping it drove the Patriots Point Development Authority to push for government funding to save the exhibit. A last-minute state loan of $9.2 million will allow the authority to move the destroyer on an August high tide before the height of hurricane season.

Then came the logistics of it all. Transporting the Laffey means dredging 800 cubic yards from Charleston Harbor, moving docks near Patriots Point, ridding the ship of hazardous materials, safely storing the historical artifacts inside, hiring four tugboats to guide it and gathering a trained crew to ride aboard to a dry dock at Detyens Shipyards.

The prep work alone accounts for about $2 million of the operation, Lombardi said.

"You take baby steps, and you get it done one day at a time," he said.

Workers tightened slings around hundreds of tons of ship machinery Wednesday afternoon, snaking high-grade cables supporting the hulking chunks of metal through I-beams positioned on deck. That way, none of that heavy load falls through the fragile hull.

An industrial sized generator sat ready to light the ship and power 12 pumps capable of moving 350 gallons of water a minute.

"This vessel has been a problem child," Lombardi said. "The contingencies that might arise. ... We're trying to anticipate those."

The Laffey, when it returns home, will move into the current space of the Coast Guard cutter Ingham, which will be transferred to a Key West, Fla., museum and floated away from Charleston the day after the Laffey's departure, Patriots Point interim executive director Dick Trammell said.

Trammell said he hopes eventually to exhibit the Laffey in the water off the starboard bow of the aircraft carrier Yorktown.

Today, the Coast Guard will inspect the Laffey to determine if its ready for transport. The ship will begin the move to Detyens as the sun rises Wednesday over the harbor. It will spend as long as four months there.