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Shipshape once again, WWII relic is set to sail

The restored SS American Victory will carry passengers on a Tampa Bay cruise on Saturday. The ship saw service in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War.

By BABITA PERSAUD
Published September 19, 2003

TAMPA - Down in the steam room, in the belly of the ship, 80-year-old Aaron Varn works like a doctor mending a body. He turns valves, patches thick pipes that hum with steam and paints rust spots. A team of volunteers helps him.

Finally their patient is ready to go.

After four years of repair and restoration, mostly by volunteer retirees, the 58-year-old SS American Victory will make its debut as a passenger cruise liner on Saturday.

Going about 15 knots, the former World War II-era cargo ship will leave the Channel District, steam across Tampa Bay to the Sunshine Skyway bridge and back. The seven-hour "Shakedown Cruise" costs $125 per person.

But don't expect a Princess or Carnival experience. No deck loungers here. No cocktails with umbrellas. No conga line on the lido deck.

In fact, there is no lido deck.

This cruise takes passengers back in time - minus the hardships of World War II. No dodging of U-Boats or kamikaze fighters on this high sea. And no MREs - military meals ready to eat.

The meals on this voyage are catered. On the menu: a continental breakfast, barbecue chicken or beef and tuna salad for lunch, and ice cream sandwiches for a snack.

Passengers won't eat in the mess hall, said Tim Teahan, a spokesman for the ship. The buffet will be set up in the No. 2 cargo hold area, a vast room that once held supplies during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. Instead of lounging on deck, guests will spend most of the cruise learning, Teahan said.

Veterans will demonstrate the ship's 50-caliber deck gun, which is as big as a movie camera and takes five people to operate.

Volunteers dressed in period uniforms will talk about the ship and the Merchant Marine. Ham radio operators will demonstrate Morse code. The cruise will also have an "air" element, said Teahan.

Vintage aircraft - a fighter trainer plane and a German Messerschmitt - will fly over the ship as it leaves its berth.

Getting the American Victory to this point - as a passenger craft - was no small task.

It took nearly $3.5-million in donations, services from local shipyards and 150 volunteers who wouldn't give up.

Varn, a former Merchant Marine, sailed on a similar ship during World War II and worked in the engine room.

California Shipbuilding Corp. launched the American Victory on June 20, 1945.

World War II ended three months later, on Sept. 2, 1945, but that didn't mean the ship missed the action. It carried its first cargo to the Pacific two days after the Japanese surrendered.

The ship continued to haul goods and equipment to war-torn countries after World War II as part of the Marshall Plan.

It was used during the Korean and Vietnam wars, also transporting goods. During peacetime, the ship was on reserve in case of a national emergency.

In 1985, the American Victory retired. It was stored in a Virginia warehouse until 1999 when John C. Timmel, a fixture in the Tampa Bay maritime community, and his 12-year-old son came visiting.

Timmel loved vintage ships and wanted to bring one to Tampa.

But would others share his enthusiasm?

He got his answer while exploring the ship - by flashlight - in a darkened warehouse.

"Wow, this is old," his son said. "I feel honored to be able to be here."

That's when Timmel realized the American Victory was the tool to tell the story of the Merchant Marine.

With the help of local shipyards, a tugboat hauled the ship from Virginia's James River to Tampa in September 1999, some 1,200 miles. Timmel and others formed the American Victory Mariners Memorial and Museum Ship, a nonprofit organization.

Last year, the ship had 20,000 visitors, many of them seniors from Sun City, Boy Scout troops and schools, said Teahan. There are three full-time employees, including Teahan.

The hope is to have more passenger cruises. Later this year, organizers want to have another "maiden" voyage to christen the ship.

For now, Varn and the other volunteers can't wait for Saturday's cruise.

"I feel she is ready," he said, wiping his brow with a handkerchief in the engine room. "We have accomplished our goal."

- Babita Persaud can be reached at 813 226-3322 or persaud@sptimes.com

If you go

The SS American Victory will host its first passenger cruise Saturday. The ship departs from behind the Florida Aquarium in downtown Tampa at 9 a.m. Boarding begins at 8 a.m. The seven-hour "Shakedown Cruise" returns about 4 p.m. Cost is $125 per person $75 is tax deductible. For tickets, call 223-7999. For more information, visit www.americanvictory.org

[Last modified September 19, 2003, 01:48:06]


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