|By BARRY NEWMAN
PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Anybody want some top-secret seagoing vessels? The Navy has a pair it doesn't need anymore. It has been trying to give them away since 2006, and they're headed for the scrap yard if somebody doesn't speak up soon.
One is called Sea Shadow. It's big, black and looks like a cross between a Stealth fighter and a Batmobile. It was made to escape detection on the open sea. The other is known as the Hughes (as in Howard Hughes) Mining Barge. It looks like a floating field house, with an arching roof and a door that is 76 feet wide and 72 feet high. Sea Shadow berths inside the barge, which keeps it safely hidden from spy satellites.
The barge, by the way, is the only fully submersible dry dock ever built, making it very handy -- as it was 35 years ago -- for trying to raise a sunken nuclear-armed Soviet submarine.
Navy Seeks Home for Secret Vessel
"I'm fascinated by the possibilities," Frank Lennon said one morning recently. Mr. Lennon runs -- or ran -- a maritime museum here in Providence. He was standing in a sleet storm on a wharf below a power plant, surveying the 297-foot muck-encrusted hulk of a Soviet submarine that he owns. His only exhibit, it was open to the public until April 2007, when a northeaster hit Providence and the sub sank.
Army and Navy divers refloated it this past summer with the aid of chains and air tanks. Mr. Lennon can't help but imagine how his sub might look alongside the two covert Cold War castoffs from the Navy. "They would be terrific for our exhibit," he said, watching the sleet come down.
But a gift ship from the Navy comes with lots of strings attached to the rigging. A naval museum, the Historic Naval Ships Association warns, is "a bloodthirsty, paperwork ridden, permit-infested, money-sucking hole..." Because the Navy won't pay for anything -- neither rust scraping nor curating -- to keep museums afloat, survival depends on big crowds. That's why many of the 48 ships it has given away over 60 years were vessels known for performing heroically in famous battles.
Museum entrepreneurs like Mr. Lennon who don't have much money can only fantasize about Sea Shadow and its barge. After all, a pair of mysterious vessels that performed their heroics out of the public eye can't have much claim to fame. Glen Clark, the Navy's civilian ship-disposal chief, has received just one serious call about the two vessels, and it didn't lead to a written application.
The Navy's insistence on donating Sea Shadow and the barge as a twofer may also explain the lack of interest. Here is the Navy's vision for a museum display as Mr. Clark describes it:
"When you're driving down the road, you can't see the Sea Shadow. You have to pay for your ticket to go on board the Hughes Mining Barge, and then you see the Sea Shadow. That has the capability of preserving the aura of secrecy of the program."
Possibly. It might also cause drivers to drive right by the hulking rust-bucket without devoting a thought to stopping.
The Hughes Mining Barge actually has nothing to do with mining or with the late, reclusive Mr. Hughes. He merely let the Central Intelligence Agency use his name in 1974 to cover up its mission to raise a Soviet submarine from the floor of the Pacific Ocean.
The adventure was publicized as the expedition of another new vessel, the Hughes Glomar Explorer, to mine for minerals on the seabed. To grab a sub, the ship needed a giant claw. But because it was big and unwieldy, the claw couldn't be installed in the ship at dockside. That's where the "mining" barge came in.
The claw was assembled inside it. According to Curtis Crooke, retired president of Global Marine Development Inc., the company that did the work, the barge with the claw inside was then towed off the California coast and submersed. The Glomar Explorer was positioned over it, and the claw hoisted into its belly.
Then the Explorer went sub hunting (exactly how much of the sub it retrieved, if anything, has never been declassified) and the barge went into mothballs.
"That's all it was used for," says Mr. Crooke, "to put the claw inside the Explorer." Would the barge work as a museum? "It's just a big old dumb barge," he says. "Now, the Sea Shadow, that's a way-out spacey kind of thing. You could tell a story about that."
The Glomar Explorer was refitted as a drill ship. The barge -- thanks to its satellite-proof roof -- got a second secret job for the Navy and its contractor, Lockheed Missiles & Space Co. In the early 1980s, Sea Shadow was assembled inside it. At a cost later put at $195 million, it aimed to attain the same invisibility at sea that it had in the federal budget.
Sea Shadow, 160 feet long and 70 feet wide, was the Navy's first experimental stealth ship. Its special coatings, sharp angles and other confidential doohickeys allowed it to baffle radar and sonar. Viewed bow-on, it looks like a squat letter "A"