NORFOLK, Va. – A handy operations vessel built during World War II but used in recent decades by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District is getting a much-needed overhaul.
The 104-foot derrick boat Elizabeth, which provides critical waterborne-lifting capabilities to support the district’s navigation mission, was brought to dry dock at Colonna’s Shipyard Inc. in early October for repairs and upgrades. USACE officials said the $750,000 refurbishment will cover replacement of propellers and propeller shafts, a reinforced steel hull, rudder and steering system fixes, and crane-hydraulics maintenance.
“The Elizabeth is a unique platform,” said Scott Titus, Norfolk District’s port engineer. “To my knowledge, there are only three other vessels like it in the Corps inventory. It was built in 1943 and acquired by USACE in 1960 for under $200,000, with an anticipated service life of 30 years. The Elizabeth has far exceeded expectations and exceeded its life span by 30 years.
“It is a workhorse for the district and provides a critical asset at a reasonable cost.”
The Elizabeth is essential to keeping the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway open to both commercial and recreational vessel traffic, he said. It’s used for debris removal within Norfolk District waters, including the river bearing its name that flows past downtown.
The roving platform supports navigation projects such as removing trees from the Dismal Swamp Canal and light marine construction – most notably, floating piers and pile clusters. The ship also conducts vibracore sampling, which provides for scientific evaluation of material studied in dredging-project design.
If a project requires, Titus said the Elizabeth can be linked up with the ND-6 crane barge, boosting operations in shallow draft or heavy lifting off the bow.
“It’s basically a self-propelled vessel with a crane,” he added. “The primary function of the Elizabeth is to provide crane capabilities over water. The Elizabeth provides the platform to get the crane where we need it.”
Rick Bruton of Norfolk District has worked on the vessel since the early 1980s and served as its captain the past 15 years. When underway, he leads a six-member crew.
“We take care of any hazards in navigation, like debris or floating docks, and clear waterways around the district,” he said. “It can also do construction work. … It’s a great floating platform.”
And highly versatile.
“It can get into real shallow water,” Bruton added, “and actually go out in the ocean. We’ve been 20 miles out before off Virginia Beach. … The main thing is this vessel really supports our Operations Branch, but we also do work for other districts.”
Titus says the Elizabeth is indeed a rare commodity in USACE. The only other similar vessels are operated by Wilmington District (the Snell), San Francisco District (Raccoon) and Seattle District (Puget).
Norfolk’s boat was built by the Navy during World War II as a wrecking derrick designed to retrieve downed seaplanes within a harbor.
A new vessel is being eyed but Norfolk District hopes to get another five years of service out of the Elizabeth, Bruton said. Restoration work should be completed by January or February.
“That’s going to make a huge difference,” he said. “It’ll feel like a new boat, and it’s probably going to look a whole lot better than it did. It’s been quite a while since it was in the yard.”
In the meantime, his crew is using a couple smaller boats to carry on the district’s waterborne operations.
“We’re still getting our work done,” he added. “The mission doesn’t stop.”
District officials say the planned replacement boat will bring added technology, capacity and steering capabilities.
But there’s certainly some fondness attached to the Elizabeth as it gets set for retirement in the next few years, Bruton conceded.
“I kinda hate to see it go – I started as a deckhand and got 36 years in on this boat,” he said. “It’ll be sad, but I look forward to seeing the new one.”