It's a cloudy, scuddy day in Bremerton Sound, Washington, with a burst of sun playing chase my shadow over the battleships Missouri and New Jersey, a rack of fast frigates, and the flight decks of two aircraft carriers, Ranger and Midway.
Gunnar Watson picks up the phone.
"Inactive ships, this is Gunnar."
A reporter's on the line from San Diego.
Watson has just walked the few hundred yards back to his office from the Missouri's fantail. He'd been there to haul up Stars and Stripes for a Navy officer's retirement ceremony. Watson's the quality assurance supervisor at this purgatory for naval ships too old to serve, but too valuable - or too toxic - to scrap. Like old dogs in a pound, they hang onto life in the hope some patriotic city will ask the Navy for a vessel they can turn into a naval museum. The battleship Missouri is the lucky one today. She's to be towed to Pearl Harbor soon, to float forever alongside her stricken mate, the Arizona.
But it's the Midway this reporter wants to know about: Is she coming to San Diego?
"Well, we are getting her ready for donation," Watson says.
"For San Diego?"
"Not officially." He mentions requests coming from Eureka, California, and Tacoma, Washington, for the Midway. Then his voice relaxes. "But I think it looks excellent for you. You've got a neat group of people down there."
That sort of endorsement is music to Alan Uke's ears. Uke's the Del Mar businessman who decided we needed our own floating museum about the time Midway was being decommissioned in San Diego. That was 1992. The "home of naval aviation," he felt, ought to have its own tribute to naval aviation. Local Navy brass have cooperated, offering their 1000-foot Navy Pier, just south of Broadway, as a permanent berth for the 52-year-old carrier.
Four years, hundreds of meetings, and $1.2 million in donations later, local politicians and the U.S. Navy Ship Donation Office in Washington, D.C., are taking Uke (pronounced "U.K.") and his crew seriously. The Secretary of the Navy will determine the Midway's fate by November 12. If he gives the nod to Uke's group, San Diego's Port Commissioners will decide soon after that.
This is all good news for Uke. Lately, he's been taking flak over his plan to park the Midway smack-dab in the middle of downtown.
"Fourteen stories high!" says Alfonso De Anda, co-owner of the neighboring 600-seat waterfront Fish Market restaurant. "This boat would make us look small, and we're the largest freestanding restaurant in San Diego County. I don't think anybody can really appreciate the magnitude of the Midway. We would lose part of our view. And the view is a big reason people come to eat with us. And we're concerned that the museum patrons will intrude on our parking."
"Putting that carrier there will be de facto landfill," says Laura Hunter of the Environmental Health Coalition. "Once they set it down, they're not going to move it. That's 7 to 12 acres of open bay that will be lost, if you count the shadowing effect. Do we want to fill in many more acres of San Diego Bay for this kind of thing? And what's the contaminant load on the bay from the project? I've got four real carriers coming into the bay already [to homeport at the expanding Coronado base]. Do we need another one? We're just overloading San Diego Bay so dramatically. It's a sad thing."
"My worry is that the bay is very finite," says Jim Peugh, Wetlands and Coastal Conservation chairperson for the San Diego Audubon Society. "There's not a lot of it. And a large portion of it is already developed out. [The carrier] is not a threat to wildlife directly, but indirectly. If we force more activity farther south in the bay by inappropriately using the north bay, then that's going to encroach on more of the wildlife-rich areas in the south bay. Is there enough room left for putting in a military relic?"
Even one of the most respected naval historians in the country, Bill Still, opposes the idea. "We have so many historic ships already throughout the United States," says Still, speaking from Honolulu, where the Historic Naval Ships Association is meeting this week. "There are a number of aircraft carriers in various communities, all the way from New York City to Charleston to Corpus Christi, Texas."
Mr. Still, who serves on the Secretary of the Navy's Advisory Committee on Naval History, has other reservations. "It is very, very, very expensive to maintain those ships. To a great degree these [historic] ships have been supported in the past by World War II veterans. What's going to happen when that generation is gone?"
The long-term expense of upkeep also worries Ray Ashley, the director of the San Diego Maritime Museum, although Ashley doesn't oppose his potential competitor coming. (The museum owns Star of India, Berkeley, and the steam yacht Medea.) "We spend $114 per ton per year on maintenance," says Ashley. "The Star of India displaces 1200 tons. Their carrier is a 51,000-ton ship, and I believe they have approximately $1 million budgeted for annual maintenance. Got a calculator?"
A calculator reveals the 1200-ton Star of India should cost $136,800 per year to maintain at that rate. The Midway, calculated at 51,000 tons, $5,814,000 - nearly six times their $1 million budgeted amount.
"We would have chosen a smaller ship because we think they are more viable," says Ashley. "A submarine in San Diego would generate almost as many visitors as the Midway. And you're looking at a 2500-ton ship, as opposed to a 51,000-ton ship."
Yet Governor Wilson, Mayor Golding, both California senators, and all congressional representatives have written enthusiastic support letters for the Midway proposal. According to Skip Hull of CIC Research in Kearny Mesa, most San Diegans and tourists to the region support the Midway as well. In 1993 he carried out a survey for Uke and his group among a cross-section of the county's 2.7 million residents, plus samplings of the 14 million overnight guests and 10 million day visitors who come to San Diego annually. Results, says Hull, showed 70 percent said they'd visit an aircraft carrier museum if it came. Of course, talk is cheap. But assuming only 3 to 4 percent of them make the effort, Hull predicts that over 700,000 people will visit in the first year, and a consistent 670,000 annually after that.
"At $7 a ticket, that would make us profitable in the first year," says Alan Uke. And that's after spending $10 to $12 million for the ship's relocation, pier-side improvements, and conversion to a museum. He believes the Midway will generate 50 full-time jobs and $50 million a year in economic benefits to the region. "This will be the first new major exhibit San Diego has had in 20 years," he says, "and the first major floating naval museum on the West Coast."
As for the $1 million maintenance budget, which Star of India's Ashley questions, Uke's project engineer Commander Pete Clayton says $1 million to $1.5 million is realistic, based on information obtained from other aircraft carrier museums. "Plus," adds Clayton, a 28-year, five-carrier veteran himself, "our ship is in much better condition than any of the others. In fact, it's practically new!"
Clayton says in 1986, just before the Cold War ended, the Midway underwent a multimillion-dollar refit in Japan, including 70 percent new plating below water. Now, with a cathodic protection system (use of electrical charges that progressively seal the hull in ever-thicker layers of calcium) in place, he's confident there will never be a need for expensive dry docking. "We've been told she's good for 100 years," he says.
And the fear that support will die out with the World War II vets? "This ship's planes shot down the first and last MiGs of the Vietnam War," says Uke. "It was the flagship for the battle fleet for the Gulf War. It'll take kids in their 20s dying out before you'd have that situation."
Uke insists the San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum group is not just a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs. "We have big businessmen in town here [on the board] like Doug Myers, the director of the zoo," he says. "They know what it's going to cost. That's why the underwriters [the Solana Beach-based firm of Miller & Schroeder] are willing to write the [$7.5 million] bond for this thing without a guarantee from the city or the county, because they're confident enough in the business plan of the management group that they don't need a back-up financially. This has got a good location, it's a good ship, and San Diego is the right place to have this kind of thing. It's a tourist town with a big naval history and a large naval population. It's like trying to have a steak house in Kansas City. You really have to blow it for it not to work."
"Austin party of eight, your table's available," squawks the intercom at the crowded Fish Market. The restaurant stands out on stilts above the water. The sunset blazes red behind Point Loma. The old Navy lighthouse winks near the lights of CV63, the carrier USS Kittyhawk at North Island. Nearby tugboats send out white-teeth bow-waves as they scuttle towards an incoming freighter. You can see how Mr. De Anda must be loathe to give away an inch of his view. The Midway's deck will soar 55 feet up, 4 feet above the roof of Navy Pier's existing warehouse. But because the Midway will be parked this side of the pier, less than 50 yards from the restaurant, it'll loom a lot larger. Its smokestack will reach up 65 feet higher still. Its bow, extending 44 feet beyond the end of the 1000-foot pier, won't cut off the Fish Market's main view of Coronado, but it will be a mighty gray wall blocking the northern prospect. One of De Anda's partners recently offered the carrier group $250,000 to take their museum somewhere else in the bay, perhaps by the airport. They turned him down.
And you can understand that, too. The dark entrance to Navy Pier's old warehouse was where thousands of San Diegans shipped out to war. Those who survived came back to the same pier at war's end. What better final home for the Midway?
Uke says his group will pay $1 million to create a 360-slot parking lot on the Navy Pier after the Navy demolishes its warehouse - before Midway opens for business - so the Fish Market doesn't need to worry about parking spaces. As for the view block, he talks about dredging so the ship can haul in further, and ballasting so she'll sit ten feet lower in the water, but there's little he can do to give Mr. De Anda back his northern prospect.