New Midsection for Vessel : Cargo Ship's Shape Gets Overhaul

Times Staff Writer

It's like a board game--a really big board game.

It involves cutting a cargo ship apart in two places, shifting the parts around, adding a new part, then putting everything back together.

It's being played right now by workmen at Todd Pacific Shipyards in San Pedro.

The pieces are awesome: a 700-foot-long, 22,000-ton ship which, when cut up, yields a stern section of about 245 feet and a bow of 150 feet. Add to that a new 351-foot cargo-carrying midsection that Todd spent nine months building.

And instead of a game board, Todd is using two adjoining work bays. Ship sections are mounted on large steel cradles that are moved on rails. A rail-mounted wood-and-steel transfer carriage allows the parts to be moved sideways from one work bay to the other. Both the ship and the new midsection were raised out of the water on a $48-million specialized lift--one of about three in the world--that Todd installed three years ago.

25% Increase in Capacity

What Todd is doing is making a larger and more efficient ship out of a 15-year-old Matson Navigation Co. vessel that had been carrying new automobiles and freight-laden truck trailers between Los Angeles and Honolulu.

When the ship, the Matsonia, sails again late this year, it will be able to carry conventional and refrigerated containers--items it has never handled before--and a greater number of cars on a four-level auto platform on the stern. There will be a 25% increase in cargo-carrying capacity.

Joe Robinson, Todd's program manager for the Matson project, said it's all a "matter of economics" in the cost-conscious shipping industry.

Matson is paying $34 million to refurbish the ship--which also will get upgraded boilers and new turbine generators--while a comparable new ship would cost between $65 million and $70 million, he said.

As awesome as the work seems because of the size of cargo ships, Robinson said that cutting them in two at the stern and adding new cargo sections has become commonplace in the last 20 years. "We've done 10 or 12 ships since 1966," he said.

As is being done with the Matsonia, ships are cut just in front of the house, the structure that contains the bridge and is the center of the ship's operation. "The stern is where the machinery is, where it costs the money," he said. He likened the forward cargo holds--which take up about two-thirds of the Matsonia--to a "big hangar."

Parts Cut Apart

But the work is hard, long and intricate. The ship parts are cut apart with acetylene torches, with the job being done in a specific sequence--alternating from top to bottom--so that interior support structures do not weaken or collapse. They are reinforced with steel beams during the cutting and reassembly process.

Recently, six "burners"--the workers who wield the torches--spent 16 hours cutting through the steel hull and interior decks of the Matsonia just in front of the house.

"It was a lot of hard work," said foreman Manuel Garcia. He and his crew said cutting floating steel giants has become a matter of routine at Todd. But Garcia added, "We all hope it goes smooth, that nothing buckles."

Later, the bow of the ship will be cut off in the same manner and it will be transferred to the adjoining work bay, where the new midsection already sits. Welders, also working in a specific sequence, will attach the two parts. Meanwhile, the old cargo section will be lowered into the water and floated away.

The new forward section of the ship then will be transferred back to the other work bay, moved in place and joined to the Matsonia's stern.

One-Month Schedule

Robinson said the whole operation should be completed in a month, and the ship then will be given a sea trial to check steering, endurance and power. Matson, which signed a contract for the work a year and a half ago, is scheduled to get the ship back on Aug. 17.

The ship will be 60 feet longer, and because the new 105-foot wide midsection is 10 feet wider than the original Matsonia, the ship will have a bulging look.

Tom O'Toole, assistant to Todd's general manager, said that although the reconstruction project has been carefully engineered and planned, the real test will come when the new midsection is matched up with the existing stern and bow.

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