MAURICE RIVER TOWNSHIP - Hissing blowtorches are punctuated by excited men yelling as another big chuck of steel comes crashing down onto the car deck of the MV Cape May. The workers taking apart the 2,100-ton Cape May-Lewes Ferry vessel are understandably happy about the latest chunk of steel they pried from the upper deck. This is one of the biggest jobs most of them have ever done, and the initial work has them high above the Maurice River with little room for error.
But down below a group of men watching the work are not exactly overjoyed. Steve Russell worked for the ferry when the MV Cape May took paying customers between North Cape May and Lewes, Del. He knows the vessel, constructed for $14.5 million in 1985 and remodeled in 1998 for $20 million, is dying way before its time.
"It's sad. It's the newest hull we had, and it's sad to see it never fulfill its mission," Russell said.
Russell now works for Dennis Township-based Northstar Marine Services, which purchased the MV Cape May earlier this year for just $750,000. The company will turn part of the hull into a barge to work on southern New Jersey bridges and possibly service offshore wind turbines if they are ever constructed.
Northstar Marine is conducting a ferry sale of sorts, including everything higher than the car deck, as it tears the vessel apart with hopes of recovering about half the purchase price, said Northstar owner Phil Risko.
Even Risko, who is looking forward to having one of the largest barges in the region, 68 feet wide and 320 feet long and complete with bow thrusters to move it into position, seems saddened by the MV Cape May's early demise.
"It's sad and stupid at the same time," Risko said.
The MV Cape May represents a time at the Delaware River & Bay Authority ferry service when then Executive Director Michael Harkins decided to turn the vessels used as a transportation link between New Jersey and Delaware into small cruise ships.
The remodeling of the MV Cape May added steel decks on a shallow draft (7 feet) vessel designed to ply the shoal-plagued Delaware Bay. It made the vessel so top heavy the U.S. Coast Guard would not let it sail on windy days. It took more crew members to run it, more paint to protect it and burned 25 more gallons of diesel fuel per hour. By 2009 the MV Cape May was left tied to the dock as the costs to run it and declining ferry ridership made it obsolete.
The $20 million remodeling that adorned the ship with bronze, teak, tropical ipe wood, Corian countertops, and other pricey amenities is leading to some good deals.
"They spared no expense. Everything is high-end on that boat," said Bill Noe, who is overseeing the sale for Northstar.
There are teak stairs, MV Cape May life preservers, mahogany card tables and pillars, beer dispensers, love seats, pizza ovens, stainless steel tables and sinks, walk-in freezers, hand-built glass and maple wood display cases, artistic ceramic tables, railings make of teak, generators, two Fairbanks Morse opposed piston diesel engines as well as their gearing, and huge panes of hurricaneproof glass wrapped in stainless steel frames.
"It's double glass, injected with gas, and practically bulletproof. They weigh 300 to 400 pounds each. They were built in Switzerland," said Noe.
The sale includes outdoor aluminum benches designed to hold life jackets, exterior lights made for a harsh marine environment, dozens of Bose hi-hat speakers, chairs of all descriptions, and several systems to launch lifeboats complete with motors and steel cable.
Most of the steel hull is going to a scrap yard in Millville, but just about everything else is for sale via an Internet site: www.goodbuyferry.com
Risko did keep the ship's bell for himself, and the DRBA wants the bistate authority's insignia back when it is removed from the superstructure. Everything else must go.
"One guy bought the mast for his front yard," Noe said.
Some may want a simple item for nostalgia purposes. Even the MV Cape May life jackets are for sale.
"Five bucks apiece," said Noe, noting one guy bought 20 of them.
Noe said he is pricing to sell.
"We have teak rails all around the decks. I called a woodworker who said it goes for $25 a linear foot. I'm charging $10. I have a guy coming to buy 150 feet, but there is probably 400 feet still available," said Noe.
The DRBA, which is also involved in economic development projects in both states, would be happy to know the ship's demise is helping the local economy. Allen Steel, in the Leesburg section of Maurice River Township, is keeping a dozen workers employed breaking the vessel down in a job expected to go into the springtime.
"We have a lot of work here because it's all labor intensive and we're helping other companies that recycle all the steel," said Allen Steel worker Joe Caruso, 28, of Millville.
Blowtorches are used to cut sections off and then gravity does much of the work. The workers carefully remove anything worth selling and trash items of no value such as insulation.
During a lunch break on Tuesday, Caruso and Freddy DeHaan, 29, of the Smithville section of Galloway Township, marveled at how well the MV Cape May was built. Steel workers know quality welding when they see it. They also know the steel will get thicker as they get to lower levels.
"It's a shame we have to tear it apart with all the work that went into it. It was a lot of manhours putting this together," Caruso said.
DeHaan respects the construction done by the Norfolk Shipbuilding and Drydock Corp., but he is also having fun.
"It is cool to be taking a Cape May ferry apart," DeHaan said.
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