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Sea Stories: #56. Jump Starting a Hydrofoil


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Sea Stories: #56. Jump-Starting a Hydrofoil


In 1990, I got to experience a most unusual triumph of creative thinking as applied to Naval Engineering. It was even more remarkable as a shining example of sea service cooperation.

The little city of Port Lavaca, Texas is about 130 miles southwest of Houston, up a long, straight shipping channel cutting through the dusty, arid south Texas landscape. The port services several major industrial entities, including Alcoa Aluminum, Formosa Plastics, and DuPont. In 1990, it was a sleepy little burg of about 11,000 people. But it was celebrating the Sesquicentennial of its founding in 1840. And the City Fathers had asked the US Navy to help them observe the occasion by sending a warship to take part.

I was serving as Executive Officer and Navigator of a 132-foot Guided Missile Hydrofoil, USS TAURUS (PHM-3). One of our sister ships happened to be captained by a native son of Port Lavaca. He had accepted (in fact, had probably finagled) the assignment to take his ship there for a multi-day port visit during the Sesquicentennial Celebration. The ship would give public tours (thereby putting a positive face on the USN and perhaps inspiring a few future enlistments,) and pump a few federal dollars and sailor's paychecks into the local economy. Everybody would have a great time.

Unfortunately for them, our sister ship experienced some kind of mechanical problem which could not be immediately repaired. So our parent Squadron reached out to us with literally a day or two's notice, asking if we would pick up her commitment to visit Port Lavaca, so that the USN would not have to suffer an embarrassing cancellation. The mighty TAURUS did as she always did, and met the challenge with grace and ability. Off we flew from Key West to South Texas, 958 nautical miles across the crystal blue of the Gulf of Mexico. The town was very pleased to host us, and we were eagerly toured by several thousand visitors over the next few days. I had actually conned the Captain into letting me transport my motorcycle, a Honda Hurricane 600CC sport bike, on the main deck, and I roared off to San Antonio to visit the parents of my best friend in high school. We had a nice visit, and I miraculously didn't kill myself riding across Texas at very high speeds.

The PEGASUS-class hydrofoils were a unique hybrid of aircraft and ship. One of the peculiar aspects of the design was that we had three separate electrical systems. The largest, main ship's power, was 400hz AC. Your normal house current is 60hz AC. 400Hz is much more suitable for powering delicate electronics, which the ship was packed with, as it features a much smoother sine wave and fewer fluctuations. Lots of the ship's equipment was therefore specially built to run on 400hz. (The galley toaster sounded like a jet engine warming up when you inserted slices of bread!) We made our own electricity using two Ships Service Power Units (SSPUs) which were small gas turbine-driven generators analogous to APUs on an aircraft. We split and transformed a small portion of our power off into a 60hz convenience circuit, so certain appliances like electric razors, power tools, etc could be powered and charged. And we had a 28-volt DC system which was served by some onboard battery banks and recharged by our ships' generators. This circuit powered critical instrumentation, emergency lighting and generator start functions.

Normally, the ship ran the SSPUs only when underway, as they consumed jet fuel and created a good deal of topside exhaust noise. When inport, we would plug into a Shore Power Cart, which was a specialized portable transformer system. These were unique to the hydrofoils, as they were designed to take normal shore power and convert it into the 400hz electricity we used. But there was a problem. Somehow, the Shore Power Cart we needed had not made it from Key West to Port Lavaca in time to support us for the visit. We ran one of the two SSPUs full time, and no doubt the attendant noise pollution put a bit of a damper on the celebrations close to the ship. But on the last day, things went pear-shaped.

The SSPU also provided compressed air which we used for starting our main engine, a General Electric LM-2500 gas turbine. You absolutely could not start the turbine without an SSPU running. Somehow, the running SSPU shut down, and we were suddenly cold and dark. OK, no problem. We could start the other SSPU using the 28v DC battery bank.......except that somehow, a switch had been misaligned for the duration of our port visit and the batteries had not been charging for three days, as we had thought. And they retained insufficient charge to start a SSPU. We were well and truly out of electricity.

Now this was a major embarrassment. It looked like the Mighty TAURUS was going to have to sit there, cold and dark, waiting for a couple of days until a shore power cart could be towed all the way from Key West to Port Lavaca – a one-way trip of 1474 miles, or about half-way across these United States. Ain't nobody happy about this.

Enter the hero – USS TAURUS's Chief Engineer (CHENG.) This excellent officer was actually a Lieutenant (Junior Grade) of the U.S. Coast Guard, assigned to us on exchange duty. He didn't know much about (and was there to learn about) the US Navy, but he was an excellent marine engineer who had considerable seagoing experience for his years. He was a heck of a nice guy, well-respected, and a creative thinker. We sat around a table in the Port Office, with the Captain, the Chief Engineer, The Port Captain, and the City Fathers, trying to figure out how we were going to get the situation resolved. The Texans were willing to do anything they could to support us. “What do you need?” they asked. “Well, technically, we need 28 volts of Direct Current, supplied at high amperage” said the CHENG. Where could we get high-amperage DC? Then a curious expression came over his face. “Do you happen to have a large portable industrial welding rig?” he asked. “This is an industrial port, you're dang tootin' we do!” came the reply. About a half-hour later, a big battered dually work truck pulled alongside, towing a huge portable welding rig. An old, weather-beaten cowboy hopped out, in his faded jeans, work shirt, battered stetson and dusty cowboy boots. He fired off the generator which powered the welder, and we connected cables to the ship, after setting the rig to produce 28 volts of output. Crossing our fingers, we turned up the amperage and threw the breaker. WhoooooooooOOOOOOOOOO went the SSPU, and with a belch of exhaust smoke, it roared into normal operation. Then: WHOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMM went the main turbine, adding its cacophonous roar to the scene. And within an hour, we were flying down the ship channel and into the Gulf of Mexico, homeward bound. Three cheers for the US Coast Guard!

TAURUS Bow 2.jpg


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