Bureaucracy blocks plans for work on legendary ship
Group has yet to obtain Mare Island lease for the icebreaker, and begins discussions with other Bay Area ports

By Lisa Vorderbrueggen
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
November 16, 2002

 

SUISUN BAY - Tucked between floating derelicts in a watery ship's graveyard, the USS Glacier flaunts her commuted sentence.

Since Congress transferred the decommissioned military ice-breaker into private hands in 2000, volunteers have set about rescuing her from leprous rust and nesting birds.

They scraped 15 years of guano and dirt off the wood-plank decks. The lights work. A weak November sun gleams through spit-shined windows on the bridge.

But this month, the nonprofit Glacier Society finds itself on a political ice floe that threatens its quest to save a ship that carried explorer Richard E. Byrd on his final journey to Antarctica.

The society still has no lease on the eve of the Glacier's scheduled sail date from its grave in the military's mothball fleet to a berth on Mare Island.

The society, the city of Vallejo and its Mare Island master developer, the Lennar Corp., remain deadlocked over terms. The deal has been adrift for two years in the base-closure bureaucracy.

Glacier advocates have begun discussions with other Bay ports, but Mare Island is closest and their first choice.

Today, those talks resemble the Glacier in 1959 when ice beset the ship in Antarctica's Bellinghausen Sea: They are going nowhere.

Vallejo and Lennar have offered the society six months' free berthing on the site of a planned maritime museum.

Any longer and the Glacier's presence could impede the Mare Island Historic Park Foundation's campaign to display a Navy ship and submarine or redevelopment and environmental cleanup work, say city and Lennar officials.

After all, they say, the Glacier has no historical link to Mare Island, offers no permanent jobs and will have a final home port in Connecticut.

"From our perspective, it's a no-starter," said Al da Silva, Vallejo community development director.

"We've made them a generous offer of premium berth space," said Lennar spokesman Jason Keadjian."

The Glacier needs berth space for 18 to 24 months, said society chairman and former Glacier navigator Ben Koether.

"We must conduct a thorough engineering review of the ship's condition, submit plans and drawings for federal approval and seek federal funding," Koether said. "That all takes time, and we're doing this with volunteers. We thought this was all settled."

The society began talks with the foundation in 2000. But the museum group later determined its status as a tenant "made it too complicated for us to become landlords," said its president Ken Zadwick. "I asked the city to handle it."

The state intends to take title to the museum property after the city's developer completes the cleanup.

In return for free berth space, the Glacier Society has offered to host free public events such as a World War II lifeboat rowing contest and educational programs.

The society has also joined with Elderhostel, a nonprofit provider of education travel programs for senior citizens, to offer trips to work on and learn about the ship.

"We can help jump-start Vallejo's efforts to establish a maritime museum at Mare Island," Koether said.

If the maritime museum obtains a date for the Navy's promised ship or submarine, the Glacier Society has agreed to vacate the berth within 90 days, Koether said.

Neither Lennar, the city nor the foundation knows when the sub or ship will arrive from their Navy storage sites in Bremerton, Wash.

As long as the Glacier agrees to leave when the foundation needs the berth, foundation President Ken Zadwick said he has no objection to its presence.

But Lennar has not budged.

"Six months is the best we can do and still meet our commitments ... under the reuse plan," said Keadjian, Lennar's spokesman.

So, for now, the USS Glacier remains tethered in Suisun Bay.

With winter upon the Bay Area, the society moved the sail date -- or more accurately, the tow date -- to February.

But 65-year-old Koether, a tenacious businessman who owns one of the nation's top food automation and online kitchen networking firms, has pledged to stay with the ship.

He's been in worse seas.

In 1959, when the USS Glacier rocked in a bed of boat-crushing Antarctic ice, he was the 22-year-old navigator who hopped aboard a ship's helicopter and went looking for an escape route.

As he tells the story, Koether helped lead the ship to open waters where it later penetrated deep into the Antarctic and carried its crew to places no humans had gone before.

"We're on a mission," Koether said. "We will not fail."

 

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