Military Transport Ships Eyeing Port in Humboldt Bay



Humboldt Bay may soon be home to a few new — and very large — ships.

The possibility floated into public view toward the end of the March 20 meeting of the Humboldt Bay Development Association Board of Directors when Vice Chair Leroy Zerlang updated his colleagues on his efforts to get the U.S. Maritime Administration to contract to house two — and possibly three — 800-foot-long ships in Humboldt Bay.

"These ships are the ready-to-go-to-war ships," Zerlang said at the meeting, adding they would be constantly ready to deploy within 24-hour's notice and calling the prospect "very exciting."

Reached after the meeting, Zerlang corrected a bit to say these aren't actually war ships in the classic sense, but cargo ships used to transport military personnel and equipment to strategic locations. It appears the vessels would be part of the Maritime Administration's Ready Reserve Force (RRF), which includes about 60 ships strategically positioned at various "outports" around the country. The ships are maintained by civilian crews to be constantly at the ready to deploy at short notice.

"As a key element of the Department of Defense strategic sealift, the RRF primarily supports transport of Army and Marine Corps unit equipment, combat support equipment, and initial resupply during critical surge periods — the period of time before commercial ships can be secured for similar support," the Maritime Administration's website states.

According to Zerlang, the ships being considered for placement in Humboldt Bay would be roll-on, roll-off vessels designed to transport ground vehicles, from tanks and armored vehicles to personnel carriers. They wouldn't store any live ammunition or explosives when in port, Zerlang said, but would deploy to another location to be outfitted with tanks, missiles, troops or whatever else.

"They're ships that would be ready to go within 24 hours," Zerlang told the Journal. "They have a civilian crew on board of about 30 people on each ship — high-paid civilians that maintain the ship, do maintenance and then, if there was a problem, a war, the ship gets underway to an undisclosed military base where they're actually loaded with the bullets and equipment."

In the event of a deployment, a captain and crew would be flown in to pilot the ship, Zerlang said, adding the Maritime Administration has been in touch with local airports, as well.

Zerlang said he believes three docks in Humboldt Bay — Schneider Dock, Schmidbauer Dock and the Fairhaven Terminal — could all accommodate the ships, noting federal officials have been in contact with all three, though all would likely need to make some infrastructure improvements.

Landing the five-year contract to house the ships would be a boon for Humboldt Bay and the county, Zerlang said. In addition to the potential influx of 60 to 90 well-paying jobs, Zerlang said the boats would need 24/7 security and would provide work for electricians, longshoremen, fabricators and other machine shops. "They spend a lot of money in port," Zerlang said. Perhaps more importantly, Zerlang said the ships would help boost the bay's "tonnage," or the metric the Army Corps of Engineers uses to estimate a port's usage and prioritize dredging, noting the corps may also prioritize dredging harbors with RRF vessels as a matter of national security.

"It would be great for the harbor," he said.

Eureka City Manager Miles Slattery said he was unaware of the effort when contacted by the Journal on March 26 but believes it could be beneficial if it comes to fruition. Primarily, he said, securing more reliably consistent dredging of the bay entrance and its channels would have reverberating impacts, both in helping existing users — from Green Diamond's exports to the commercial fishing fleet — and potential new ones, noting that shoaling has proven an obstacle to some waterfront development.

"Economically, it would be good," Slattery said.

Also reached on March 26, North Coast Congressmember Jared Huffman similarly said he was unaware of efforts to bring Maritime Administration ships to Humboldt Bay, adding he has some reservations.

"One of the things that we're already trying to work through very carefully is how to make sure the offshore wind project works in harmony with our working harbor and the fishing fleet and with other shipping that needs to come in and out of Humboldt Bay," Huffman said, adding he would be cautious about bringing 800-foot ships into the middle "of this balancing act that we're already trying to navigate."

If it lands the contract, Humboldt Bay would be the only port between San Francisco and Tacoma, Washington, to host an RRF vessel, potentially making it more strategically desirable as the Maritime Administration looks to bolster its fleet. Created in 1976 as a part of the administration's National Defense Reserve Fleet, the RRF is intended to support the rapid worldwide deployment of U.S. military forces. The program grew from comprising just six ships at its inception to more than 100 in 1994 before its numbers have steadily dwindled to just 48 today. It is unclear why the administration is now pushing to expand the program, but it could be due to the U.S. Navy's struggles to maintain a readily deployable surface fleet.

The industry publication reported back in January that the Navy was falling well short of its goal of having 75 combat-ready ships deployable at any given time, with an unnamed official telling the publication the actual number was likely in the "low 50s." U.S. Naval Institute News, meanwhile, reported earlier this month that a Maritime Administration RRF ship was preparing to deploy to Gaza loaded with a modular causeway and other equipment needed to build a floating pier needed to bring humanitarian aid to the war-torn territory's residents.

Zerlang said he's personally been working to recruit the Maritime Administration to Humboldt Bay for three years, believing it a key to better maintaining dredging of the bay's entrance and channels, while bringing other economic benefits. He's pleased those efforts may be bearing fruit, saying officials had already come to Humboldt County to meet with him, dock owners, local fire departments and others. Next steps, he said, include soliciting letters of support from the city of Eureka and the Harbor District, while proving to the Maritime Administration that local infrastructure is ready to accommodate the massive ships and their crews that might have to be flown in at a moment's notice.

While Zerlang said contracts could be finalized with the Maritime Administration in as soon as 160 days, he said they could also take as long as a year. He said there would likely be plenty of permitting processes to navigate — naming the California Coastal Commission and the air quality control board, as a couple agencies with likely jurisdiction — though he said he wasn't sure what that would entail.

Some may bristle at the prospect of seeing a military-style ship docked on Humboldt Bay, but Zerlang said he doesn't see it as much different than a ship loaded with wood chips for export. But these from the Maritime Administration, he said, wouldn't be extracting anything from the local area — just bringing jobs and, potentially, more regular dredging.

"They're safe, very well maintained, very good for the economy," he said.

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected].


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