Morale: Berthing Barge Rebirth

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August 26, 2021: The U.S. Navy received the first of at least five APL-S-67 berthing barges in July and the fifth one began construction in August. These Auxiliary Personnel Lighter-Small berthing barges are a new design and the first new navy berthing barge design since the 1950s. Sailors who have seen the new APL-67s report that in addition to being new, they have a lot of the new features sailors have long sought for these temporary accommodations. The older berthing barges had not aged gracefully and the navy did not put a high priority on spending money required to keep the elderly berthing barges at least as accommodating as living quarters on warships. Another problem was that there were not enough berthing barges available to meet demand. In some emergency situations sailors are housed in local hotels temporarily and the difference between that and a berthing barge was considerable. Worse, many sailors or close kin had spent time on commercial berthing barges used in remote work sites. This was the standard the new navy berthing barges had to match.

The APL-67 barges have to be towed into position and the first one is on its way to an American naval base in Yokosuka, Japan. Before the completion of the first APL-67 class barge, the most recently built berthing barge was twenty years old, and one of the World War II era APLs was still in service. The basic APL design was created in World War II and over fifty were built by 1945. Some went through refurbishment and were kept in service for decades. Some commercial berthing barges were obtained during the naval build up in the Persian Gulf after 2001. Commercial berthing barges are widely used, with accommodation ranging from basic to motel-class for housing workers in areas where there are no suitable commercial accommodations. Oil field workers in remote parts of the world are frequently housed in berthing barges and morale was maintained by using modern, comfortable berthing barge designs. The APL-67 design is larger and with more amenities than the World War II APLs, which held about a hundred personnel each.

The APL-67s will replace six older berthing barges, some of them way past their replacement date. Thanks to the Internet, sailors assigned to these older barges reported to other naval personnel the decrepit conditions on the older barges and a few sailors familiar with more recent berthing barge designs described the differences in excruciating and embarrassing, for the navy, detail. The older barges had become a major morale problem, which was part of the motivation for the new APL design.

The first three of these new barges will all be in service by 2022. The first two will cost $39 million each and that includes the cost of designing them. These ships will all have entered service by 2023 and ultimately the average cost per barge will be about $30 million each. The new 2,700-ton barges have accommodations for 74 officers and 537 enlisted sailors. The new barges are built to accommodate mixed gender enlisted personnel. Each barge has all the facilities found on warships. This includes offices, classrooms, washrooms, laundry, medical treatment, barbershop and a fitness facility. There is a dining facility that can feed 228 enlisted and 56 officers per sitting. These six new berthing barges are the beginning of a program where all older berthing and messing (dining only) barges, especially those with accommodations inferior to those found in the latest warships, will be replaced. Improving ship accommodations was found to be a major factor in whether sailors stayed in the navy.

The navy is also building a larger version of the new berthing barge that can accommodate about a thousand personnel and feed 3,000 a day. The new barges reflect changes in the last fifty years, with ships getting more amenities and mixed-gender crews. More crew members have families and can often live at home during longer periods when the unmarried crew is on the berthing barges. The barges are currently used at eight bases or shipyards in the mainland United States, plus some in Hawaii, Guam and Japan.

The navy has long used berthing barges to house crews when their ships are undergoing repairs or refurbishment that makes it impossible for the crews to still live on the ship. Since World War II the navy has used berthing barges, rather than barracks ashore, for this task. The berthing barges spend most of their time tied up to a dock and connected to shore-based electricity, sanitation and water supplies. The main advantage of berthing barges is that, when needed at another base or shipyard, they can be disconnected from local utilities and towed to the other base, just like any other barge.

The new barges will have better-living accommodations for enlisted crew and, most importantly, are new, not decades old. Moreover, the new barges are built to house civilians to support the navy assisting in disaster relief missions. This is a relatively new task but one that is much appreciated in U.S. and overseas locations where the navy shows up to provide supplies, electricity (from ships), communications and air (helicopters and surveillance) support. The APL-67s are built to last at least 40 years, including one or two rounds of refurbishment.

 


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