M/V Cape Ray: Last Stop for Syrian Chemical Weapons

by Paul "Chip" Jaenichen
Tuesday, July 01, 2014
The 648-foot roll-on/roll-off Ready Reserve Force ship M/V Cape Ray (Photo: MARAD)

As I write, the M/V  Cape Ray, a 648-foot roll-on/roll-off Ready Reserve Force ship is steaming under orders towards Gioia Tauro, Italy, to load hundreds of tons of Syrian Government chemical weapon agents and precursor chemicals, before neutralizing them at sea.

With innovative safe-destruction technology welded to its decks, the  Cape Ray is the United States’ key contribution to the joint Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) / United Nations international effort to eliminate the Syrian stockpile of chemical weapons, and it provides the latest reminder of the important role America’s merchant mariners play in supporting our national security as well as our economy.

The M/V  Cape Ray is one of 46 vessels in stand-by status in our Nation's Ready Reserve Force (RRF), a fleet managed by the Maritime Administration (MARAD), to provide for rapid mass movement of Department of Defense (DOD) equipment and supplies to support our Armed Forces and respond to national and humanitarian emergencies. Each vessel in the fleet is maintained to remain in a state of readiness so that a full activation can be achieved quickly and the ship certified as mission ready. In nearly every case, MARAD completes RRF vessel activation in five days or less.

This level of readiness was the reason the  Cape Ray, the assigned ship manager, Keystone Shipping Services, Inc., and the all-volunteer U.S. Merchant Marine crew were able to prepare for this historic mission in a very short time.

Converting a sealift vessel into an OPCW-verified chemical weapons destruction facility was no easy task, given the scope of the mission, the number of government agencies and commercial companies involved, and the extensive vessel modifications required. Without question, this was a first of its kind project for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The unique mission required the team to make significant modifications, including installation of additional berthing, office, and messing spaces; a medical unit; reverse osmosis water purification units; a commercial-grade helicopter landing deck for emergencies; an environmental enclosure with carbon filtration; separate filtered air handling systems; and two Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems to neutralize and convert chemical agent materials into liquid compounds not usable as weapons. During this activation stage, maritime labor from Marine Engineers Beneficial Association and Seafarers International Union rapidly assembled a top-notch crew of 36 U.S. civilian mariners who now operate the vessel and maintain the necessary onboard support--including berthing and food--to allow the military, inspectors, technical experts, and personnel from the U.S. Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center to perform their vital mission.

Once modifications were completed, extensive in-port and at-sea testing were conducted. A diverse team from more than 20 different organizations worked tirelessly to test and improve the vessel’s capabilities to ensure that chemical weapons could be handled and neutralized safely. Measures were also put in place to ensure there would be no impact on the environment or harmful effects on human life when the  Cape Ray returns stateside.

The rapid preparation and deployment of the  Cape Ray make it perfectly clear that the RRF is a valuable national asset that is ready when needed –even for missions we never thought necessary. Through fiscal responsibility, diligent hard work, and continuous maintenance, the RRF vessels and the U.S. Merchant Marine continue their well-established and proud tradition of serving when called upon.

For them, “In Peace and War Since 1775” is more than just a tagline; it's a fact.

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