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May 2006

The many lives of MV Virginian
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By Gillian Brigham, SEALOGEUR Public Affairs

MV Virginian's 800-ton crane
MV Virginian's 800-ton crane is one of the largest sea-going cranes in the world. Able to lift up to 65 tons at a time, 20-ton containers on Virginian's deck pose no problem. Dave Clement photo

Speed boats cut through the gravel-colored fog rolling over the Mediterranean Sea, carrying crane operators and cargo handlers to the sturdy, red ship looming in the distance. It is early morning in Talamone, a tiny, provincial port town off the coast of northern Italy, and MV Virginian has work to do.

Today, the MSC-chartered cargo ship is conducting an off-load operation, using its 800-ton crane to haul containers of ammunition up from its cargo holds onto the waiting deck of MV Troubadour, a small ferry that will transport the ammunition north to Livorno, Italy, for delivery to a military storage facility at the U.S. Army's Camp Darby, also in Italy.

"We're acting pretty much as a liner service for the U.S. military's ammunition right now," says Capt. Craig Curran, the ship's master who is standing outside on the bridge watching stevedores aboard Troubadour unhook a 20-ton container from Virginian's crane. "That is the mission we've been on the past couple years."

This is Virginian's fourth and last day in Talamone since it arrived March 25. On March 26, the Netherlands-flagged Troubadour, along with the Italian-flagged MV Ganda made their first run up to Livorno. Troubadour came back for a second load and, once operations have wrapped up, will head back out to sea on its way to do the same in other ports.

Capt. Curran tilts his head to get a better look at the crane, which is pivoting on its pedestal to reach its neck into Virginian's hold. "This is the most challenging part of these kinds of operations. When it gets windy or rough it can make the containers a bit unwieldy on the crane." He stops, watching the action on the weather deck below. The wind subsides for a moment. "They've got it," he says, and goes back inside.

Virginian is a commercially-owned and -operated ship under contract to Military Sealift Command. Currently, U.S. troops around the globe rely on it to bring them supplies and equipment. Since November 2002, four months before the start of the war in Iraq, Virginian has completed 21 missions for the U.S. military, delivering almost 1.7 million square feet, or nearly 30 football fields, of cargo.

But that is just a small piece of its history. Built in Germany in the early 1980s, Virginian spent her first years carrying out commercial missions. In an ironic twist of fate, the ship currently known for carrying military supplies to the Middle East was accidentally hit by an Exocet missile while off-loading commercial cargo in Iraq in 1986.

MSC first chartered Virginian, then known as MV Strong Virginian, in 1992. For the next five years, a 500-bed fleet hospital was prepositioned aboard the ship as she carried out a variety of Department of Defense missions, including delivering equipment and supplies to Africa as part of Operation Restore Hope, transporting a bio-safety lab from Inchon, Korea, to Jakarta, Indonesia, and ferrying harbor tugs used by the U.S. Navy from Diego Garcia to Guam and back.

Virginian was chartered again in 1998 and, for the next four years, the ship was used to support the U.S. Army. Virginian delivered combat craft, tugboats and barges and other elements of the Army's port opening packages. These packages are used to give the military access to rarely used ports in areas vital to U.S. military operations.

MV Virginian conducts a side-by-side off-load operation with MV Troubadour
Military Sealift Command-chartered cargo ship MV Virginian conducts a side-by-side off-load operation with MV Troubadour off the coast of Talamone, Italy, March 27. Gillian Brigham photo

Curran is a 16-year veteran of the maritime industry who has spent much of the past three years sailing Virginian's usual route from the U.S. to the Mediterranean to the Middle East. He credits the ship's appeal to its ability to adapt to a myriad of different missions and requirements.

"The best feature of this ship is that it's versatile," said the captain. Beyond its massive crane and cavernous cargo holds, the Virginian also has a stern ramp that vehicles can drive up and a heavy-lift capability that allows the ship to move oversized cargo like large boats and barges.

"The ship can be reconfigured at a moment's notice to carry containers, or tanks and tracked vehicles or landing craft utility vessels or any combination thereof."

This wide range of capabilities that has made the ship invaluable to MSC over the past 14 years has also made life unpredictable for crew members aboard Virginian.

"It's definitely interesting," says Second Mate Dave Clement. "You never know where you are going to end up or where MSC is going to tell you to go next."

For the moment, the crew knows their game plan for the next few months - more stops like the one in Talmone, more containers to send on to the troops. But beyond that, it is anyone's guess.

"Our job is to keep our customer happy," said Curran. "When they say, 'we want this ship here to do this,' we'll do our damndest to get it there."