Group works to save cutter

Juneau nonprofit hopes to refurbish ship as a museum

Posted: Monday, October 30, 2006

She's old. Really old. Some call her "grandma." Even at full steam, her three engines can only manage 14 knots.

But to others, she's a thing of beauty. A group in Juneau notes that with age comes history and a sure hand. It's just that history the group is trying to save.

During the weekend, the Coast Guard cutter Storis, also known as the "Queen of the Fleet," was in Juneau for a port call.

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The oldest commissioned cutter in the Coast Guard fleet, the Storis is scheduled to be decommissioned in February and then sold for scrap.

The commanding officer of the ship, Coast Guard Capt. Jim McCauley, 44, of Salem, N.Y., is taking the Storis to many of the Alaska ports the ship has protected in its 64 years of service. But as the year winds down, time is running short for the group of Juneau men who are trying to save the ship and turn it into Alaska's first state maritime museum.

Joe Geldhof, one the co-founders of the Juneau chapter of the Navy League, has been interested in maritime history for a long time. He has long noted the way Alaskans depend on and interact with the sea on a daily basis. As important as the ocean is to Alaskans, he said, there is no state museum cataloging the history of the thousands of men and woman who have spent their careers on Alaska's waterways.

"You need a place to put all these artifacts," Geldhof said.

Geldhof isn't the only one that would like to see Juneau become the site of a nautical museum. He and at least five others have formed a limited liability company known as USCG Cutter Storis Museum and Maritime Education Center. The men, joined as a nonprofit group, want to buy the ship from the U.S. government before the it leaves Alaska waters.

McCauley said the ship already is a museum of sorts.

"There's a lot of history on this ship," he said. "Since the '40s, this ship has been doing things that no other ship has."

The ship was commissioned in September 1942. It is 230 feet long and 43 feet wide. It has three diesel-electric engines that turn one propeller shaft. It has a crew of 12 officers and 74 enlisted.

After commissioning, the ship was put in service off the coast of Greenland. It was used to destroy weather stations used to guide the Nazi war machine in World War II.

Following the war, the ship was stationed on the East Coast. In 1948, the Storis was posted in Juneau. Originally outfitted as a light icebreaker, the Storis made history again by discovering the Northwest Passage with three other Coast Guard cutters.

When the ship returned to the waters off Greenland, it became the first U.S. registered vessel to circumnavigate the North American continent. The Storis also gained fame for delivering supplies to native villages in Alaska isolated by winter storms.

Geldhof said it will be difficult bringing the ship to Juneau. The group needs Congressional approval to gain custody of the ship.

Then there are the small matters of finding a place in Juneau to put it, and raising the $750,000 to retrofit the boat.

Still, the captain of the ship and his crew said that personally, they would much rather the ship be turned into a museum than a pile of paper clips.

Coast Guard Seaman Cory Armitage, 19, of Aurora, Colo., said the Storis is a great ship, with a great crew and a great history. He said he believes the ship could be used for many more years. But short of that, he'd like to see it turned into a museum.

"It's a good idea, over anything else, I'd like that."

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