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Keyport Museum’s Deep-Sea Vessel in Shipshape Form

The Trieste II was anchored in a parking lot, not in metal-eating saltwater.

Yet salty air off Dogfish Bay and red duct tape were ravaging the deep submergence vessel. A fixture at the Naval Undersea Museum since the facility opened in 1991, the Trieste II was rusting away.

A Port Orchard company, with $80,000 from the Navy, is reclaiming the historic vessel. A two-month renovation will wrap up in a couple weeks.

“It’s gone places they don’t build equipment to go anymore,” said Pat Spicer, project leader for Q.E.D. Systems. “It’s as interesting as it gets, but it’s a huge, huge challenge.”

Museum visitors aren’t likely to give the Trieste a second glance. It looks like a giant propane tank with little orange propellers, but its feats are impressive. Certified to operate 20,000 feet under the sea, it discovered and photographed debris from the submarine USS Thresher, which sank in the Atlantic Ocean with all hands on board on April 10, 1963.

In 1969, it again submerged 10,000 feet to investigate the wreckage of USS Scorpion, which sank May 22, 1968, southwest of the Azores. It photographed the submarine and compiled a report to determine how it was lost. And you can bet sunken American subs weren’t the only ones it investigated.

The Trieste II was the first submersible to recover man-made items from the ocean floor, first to certify “hydronauts” for extreme depths and time in the vessel, and first to operate a tethered “flying eyeball.” It was deactivated in 1984.

The ship’s condition didn’t seem too bad at first. Only 4,200 square inches appeared damaged. When workers looked deeper — and pulled off strips of red duct tape that had been on the vessel for years — another 24,000 inches was discovered, said Ron Roehmholdt, museum exhibits chief.

Spicer and his crew found rust holes as big as basketballs, he said, and there were little trees growing on top of the ship.

First they had to pressure wash the vessel, then blast the good part with a Sponge-Jet system — like sandblasting but with softer projectiles. They took power tools to the rusty areas and had to rebuild some places with fiberglass and metal epoxy. Those spots were smoothed over with putty. About all that remains is the final painting.

“We’ll probably never do something like this again,” Spicer said of the company, which is accustomed to working on submarines, tugboats and barges. “It’s been fun. It’s nerve-racking, I tell you that. It’s easy to get overwhelmed because there’s so much rust.”

The Trieste II, which was featured in National Geographic and TV documentaries, was like a big balloon, Roehmholdt said. It carried aircraft fuel, which is lighter than seawater, for buoyancy. To descend, seawater was pumped in. To go up, it discharged iron shot. Powered by batteries, it could stay down for 12 hours traveling at 2 knots. The three-person crew only had a little port hole to see through.

“As far as technology goes, it’s an absolute marvel, a national treasure,” said museum curator Stephen Crowell.


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