A slow slog: Mud slows USS Orleck as it crawls to permanent home
Time and tide wait for no man — or in this case, a historic warship once known as the “Grey Ghost."
Neither does mud, as tugboats had to work hard early Monday to slide the USS Orleck through some muck to get it to its new home at Pier One in Downtown Jacksonville.
The move was timed to match slack tide right after high tide Monday, with powerful tugboats getting the 2,250-ton warship to the old Jacksonville Shipyard basin by 10:45 a.m., then maneuvered parallel to the concrete pier. But as the tide began receding, the 78-year-old destroyer's keel slid into silt in the basin, plowing some up above the water amidship as the hull was pushed toward the pier.
With one tugboat using its propeller to blast silt from under the Orleck's keel, and three more nudging as black mud churned in their wakes, it took more than two hours to get the bow close enough to the pier to lower a gangway and unload passengers. Dan Bean, president of the Jacksonville Historic Naval Ship Association, admitted they were "a little late" in getting to the pier during high tide, but the ship is safely docked.
"We knew we were going to have muck," Bean said after watching from Pier One. "We have been in here many times. You can't dredge it because it goes right through the shovel. That's why we saw the tugs churning it up to let us get in. We are about 8 feet short of where we want to be, but that's not going to be a problem."
Longtime Jacksonville resident William Harrell, a U.S. Navy veteran who sailed on a Gearing Class destroyer himself, said he is glad to have "a stable place" to moor the Orleck. It is right next to the historic Fire Station No. 3 and the planned Shipyards West Park and Museum of Science & History in the next two years or so. But now the work begins to get it ready again for visitors, including better parking and a visitor center along East Bay Street pier, he said.
"This is going to be a tough place for a year or so. The city made the decision where they wanted it and we are doing the best to get it there," Harrell said. "The problem is the ship has got to stay financially sound during that two-year window."
A long life in wars
The Gearing-class destroyer was built in 1945, operating in the Navy’s 7th Fleet during the Korean War. Renovated in 1962, the 390-foot warship went to sea during the Vietnam War, earning the nickname "Grey Ghost of the Vietnam Coast” as it earned 14 Battle Stars on top of four awarded it during the Korean conflict.
The Orleck later served as a training ship, then appeared in the TV miniseries “Winds of War” before its sale in 1987 to the Turkish Navy, serving until 2000 as the TCG Yücetepe. The Orleck became a floating museum in Orange, Texas, and moved in 2010 to Lake Charles, Louisiana, as part of another waterfront attraction. The ship ownership was transferred in 2019 to the Jacksonville Naval Museum after three years of disuse. It was towed in late March 2022 to its mooring site Downtown on the St. johns River, next to the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville.
Pier One is where the USS Orleck was supposed to move by the end of summer, just east of the Berkman Plaza marina. But issues preparing the pier for the warship delayed that, prompting Hyatt Regency General Manager Joe Hindsley to complain in November to a City Council committee, saying the historic attraction caused “significant negative financial impact” as well as guest complaints that it spoils the view.
The Mayor’s Office filed an emergency bill to expedite the move, allowing the Jacksonville Historic Naval Ship Association to install eight mooring bollards and pilings at Pier One to safely moor the destroyer. The association also began building a handicapped-accessible ramp to get visitors from the parking area to the stern of the Orleck for tours, at a cost of $100,000, Bean said.
The ship was supposed to be moved Friday, but the tides were not right. So three tugboats nudged the Orleck a half mile from the hotel to Pier One beginning at 9:45 a.m., a fourth tug standing by to help push it into place. Pier One is part a new Downtown museum district.
The Orleck's new home
Work has begun to prepare the brick fire station after its move from Metropolitan Park. And workers have added docking bumpers and pilings on Pier One. But there is no paved parking for the ship or fire museum yet. And the only access to Pier One is a temporary aluminum ramp from the grass lot to the pier.
But Bean said they have the financial backing to begin transforming the site into an historic ship museum.
“This is just the next step in the evolution. We were waiting on the pier, and we have all kinds of ideas — a mural or some type of thing to make that pier look more aesthetically pleasing," Bean said. "Then just this area around here, we are going to get to work, clean it up, make sure that people feel welcome down here. And this is just part of the gentrification of the pier and Shipyards West.”
The Orleck is closed to the public for the time being. Bean said he expects it to reopen to the public in about 10 days, with the new ramp augmented by a standard metal gangway on the bow, lowered shortly after the ship was snugged closer to Pier One early Monday afternoon. And the mud under its keel is actually a good thing, Bean said.
"The ship will gradually move itself in," he said. "And one thing we know we won't have to worry about is the ship won't sink where it is."