Saturday, February 26, 2011

Navy Salvage Vessels - "Junk Boats"

KEY WEST, Fla. (NNS) -- In a U.S. Navy Fleet of aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and amphibious assault ships, it's a curious question how salvage vessels acquired the nickname 'junk boats.'  As with any good sea story, there are multiple accounts of its origin.

An undisputable fact about junk boats, however, is that salvage vessels, like the USNS Grasp (T-ARS-51), have long operated as a platform for Navy Divers.

According to the Captain of the USNS Grasp (T-ARS-51), Peter Long, the term junk boat is a historic legacy from early salvage operations.

"In the old salvage days, salvage ships would attempt to recover what they could from wreckage sites," said Long, a civilian mariner with the Military Sealift Command (MSC). "If they couldn't bring it back in total, they brought back as  much as they could. And so, they came back with a lot of 'junk'."

Senior Chief Navy Diver, Russell Ciardiello, Master Diver of Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit (MDSU) 2, Company 1, reports a slightly different version.

"Back then, there was more importance - and money - put into war-fighting ships," said Ciardiello. "When salvage vessels needed repairs or replacement parts, they had to find them in the junkyards."

Either way, the nickname stuck. And junk boats, still a key operating platform for Navy Divers, like those from MDSU2 based at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story.

On June 28, MDSU2, Company 2-1, aboard the USNS Grasp completed a 24-day training exercise in Key West, Fla.  "The training in Key West included mixed-gas diving, surface supplied diving, diving the MK 16 rebreather, chamber operations and emergency procedure drills," said Chief Navy Diver Jason Smith, Chief Petty Officer at Company 2-1. "We also assisted the ship's crew with mooring operations."

Onboard USNS Grasp and other safeguard-class vessels are fly-away surface supplied dive systems and a decompression chamber.

"The fly-away system can be operated from port or starboard side without any modification," said Ciardiello. "It's very easy and efficient to shift based on sea state and current. Having a chamber on board, inside the skin of the ship, you're protected by the elements. If we had a real casualty, and had to treat a guy for several hours in the chamber, the ship could easily get underway and head into port."

In addition to dive training, life aboard a salvage vessel tests the fundamental seamanship skills of Navy Divers.

"Most people don't realize the level of seamanship that is required of divers," said Smith, a former Boatswain's Mate 1st Class. "We use line handling and rigging every day in our jobs, especially aboard junk boats."

Company 2-1 is scheduled for deployment aboard the USNS Grasp to South America as part of Southern Partnership Station. During this 6-month deployment, Company 2-1 divers are scheduled to sail from port to port, working with military divers of partner countries to improve their diving skills 
and capacities.

"Working with military divers from other countries is a great exchange of information," said Chief Hospital Corpsman Christopher Precht, the Diving Medical Technician with Company 2-1. "It's an opportunity for our divers to practice their own skills, as well as travel and work with people from different cultures."

"When salvage boats were first commissioned, there were two classifications of Navy Divers," said Ciardiello. "Junk boat divers and non-junk boat divers."

"The duty aboard these vessels was just that arduous," said Ciardiello, "The diver would stand bridge watch and engineering watch. They were anchor duty and team leaders on the fire party. On top of it all, they had to take care of the dive system onboard."

USNS Grasp is still a Navy-owned vessel, but her crew is made up of civilian mariners from MSC. The civilian mariners aboard include able-body seaman, stewards, communication operators, engineers, and a navigation crew. 

"We can do salvage operations, harbor clearance and pulling off stranded vessels," said Long. "We have surface supplied air that can put divers down to 190 feet. We can unload mixed gas and get divers to 300 feet. We've salvaged gear from as low as 4,000 feet deep utilizing remote operated vehicles. 
This ship can also tow an aircraft carrier, and we've done a number of towing jobs."

"This type of vessel has always been held in a high regard in Navy diving," said Ciardiello. "All the big jobs were onboard a junk boat. TWA Flight 800 was onboard a junk boat. The Monitor recovery: that was done onboard a junk boat. The USS Lagarto identification in the Gulf of Thailand, a WWII submarine that hadn't been seen in 60 years, was identified onboard a junk boat."

"The junk boat's history, every diver knows about," said Ciardiello. "And for the guys to get on here, they feel like they got a little piece of diving history.  It's a pride thing."

By U.S. Navy story by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nicholas S. Tenorio

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