USS Independence leaves naval base

After a delay of a few months, the decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Independence is finally underway to the Port of Brownsville after its departure March 11 from Naval Base Kitsap in Bremerton, Wash.

International Shipbreaking Ltd., part of the EMR Group, won the Navy bid to recycle the 60,000-ton vessel, the last of the Forrestal-class of “supercarriers.” It’s being towed to Brownsville, a 16,000-mile trip expected to take about 75 days, which would put it here sometime in late May.

The departure was held up over environmental regulators’ concern that the scraping of the hull — required before the Independence could set sail — was causing environmental damage to the Puget Sound inlet where the ship was moored.

Normally the voyage from Bremerton, which requires navigating the Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America, takes around four months. Such was the case when International Shipbreaking won the Navy bid to dismantle the decommissioned carrier USS Constellation, which arrived in Brownsville in mid-January 2015.

Robert Berry, International Shipbreaking’s vice president, said the trip will be quicker this time around, since the company hired a faster, supersized tow vessel for the task.

“It’s the biggest doggone tug I’ve ever seen,” he said. “She’s 349 or 350 feet.”

The vessel, the Dino Chouest, carries about a million gallons of diesel and won’t have to stop to refuel at all along the way. Berry said the company opted for the larger tugboat because it substantially reduces risk — plus it was available, a rarity for the handful of this type of vessel registered in the United States, a requirement in this case.

The Independence is the last Forrestal-class carrier to be constructed, with the hull laid down at the New York Navy Yard in 1955. The carrier was launched in 1958, commissioned in 1959, and decommissioned in 1998 after nearly 40 years of active service.

Brownsville’s first supercarrier was the decommissioned USS Forrestal itself, which arrived in 2014 and was dismantled by All Star Metals. Its sister ship, the USS Saratoga, arrived the same year and sits partially disassembled at Esco Marine’s former yard. The ship recycler filed for bankruptcy and is now under different ownership, and could restart operations soon.

International Shipbreaking received the USS Ranger, the third Forrestal-class carrier to be built, in July 2015. In January of that year, the company took delivery of the decommissioned Kitty Hawk-class USS Constellation. Berry said there’s a good chance that this year or next, International Shipbreaking will get the decommissioned USS Kitty Hawk itself, recently struck from the Naval Vessel Register.

It’s the right time of year, meanwhile, for the Independence and the Dino Chouest to be making the journey, he said.

“It’s summertime at the tip of South America, so it’s better weather,” Berry said. “Down there by the Antarctic you never get what you’d want to call good weather, but it’s much better than it is in the winter.”