Maritime Tales: A Company History Series | Episode 10

Words by Dave McMillan, former CEO of Vard Marine Inc. (1989-2020)

In the late 1990s, the company (at the time Kvaerner Masa Marine Inc.) worked with two ship brokers, based out of Washington (D.C.), who planned to purchase a Russian Ro-Ro vessel and offer it to the US Military Sealift Command as a conversion under the Maritime Prepositioning Force (Enhanced) MPF(E) program.  The “SMIRNOV” Class vessels were originally built at the  Chernomorski Shipyard in Nikolaev, Ukraine. They were designed to carry military and commercial Ro-Ro cargo on multiple internal decks and had a 50MW gas/steam turbine combined cycle (GTCC) power plant capable of driving the vessel up to 26 knots.  The vessel to be purchased, the “Kapitan Smirnov”, was being operated by BLASCO Oriental Line from Singapore to Vladivostok, and the plan was to transfer the vessel to a US shipyard and perform an extensive strip out of electrical components and cabling, add a mid-body plug, replace all propulsion equipment, fit new cranes and a stern ramp and provide ventilation to all the existing and new cargo holds.  Overall, this resulted in a four-year comprehensive design contract with Bender Shipbuilding and Repair, which at that time was the largest single contract for the company at nearly $10M USD. 

To meet the requirements of the MPF(E) program, the vessel was to be lengthened from 745 ft LOA to 865 ft LOA.  With the further addition of large deck hatches, side door openings, large deck cranes and multiple deck cut-outs for the new ventilation system, extensive structural analysis was undertaken to ensure both global and local strength was maintained in critical areas of the ship structure. This resulted in some very strict installation tolerances that drove the shipyard to adopt greater quality control on the production effort. From a propulsion standpoint, two new 20MW Ukrainian Zorya reversible gas turbines and a new steam waste heat recovery system were installed, and Vosper Controls from the UK were retained to design and install the new propulsion control system.  

Original SMIRNOV Class Ro Ro
Original SMIRNOV Class Ro-Ro
USNS “Roy M. Wheat”
The design team department leads with myself and the translator in Nikolaev
Boarding the somewhat basic transfer shuttle to the aircraft in Odessa – no windows

As the design work commenced, it became evident that the knowledge from the original vessel design team was critical to ensure we understood the basis of the vessel design.  As Project Manager, I spent several weeks at the Chernomorsudoproject office in Nikolaev in 1998 to review the design documents with the various discipline leads for the project and discuss methodology for our conversion work.  This was a very interesting time to visit the Ukraine, which was just after the break-up of the Soviet Union and maintenance of local infrastructure was lacking. The whole team in Nikolaev was excellent to work with and the design quality and methodology was ground-breaking at that time for large Ro-Ro vessels.  The testament to their homogeneous structural design approach, making the primary transverse and longitudinal structure the same depth, was clear during a visit to the 10-year-old “Kapitan Smirnov” in Singapore.  The vessel had been used extensively to carry both commercial and military Ro-Ro cargo and every deck on the ship was still as flat and true as a billiard table with no plate deformation or structural buckling of any type.

All work was completed at the Bender shipyard in Mobile, Alabama and the USNS “Roy M. Wheat” was delivered to MSC in 2002 to be stationed permanently at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.