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Restoring the USS Alabama: Surety Lessons From an 80-Year-Old Battleship

It might seem daunting, but the surety bond and restoration process of an 80-year-old battleship is more or less like any other project.
By Richard Sghiatti
September 6, 2023
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It’s not every day that a construction company gets to renovate an 80-year-old battleship. Yet that’s exactly where Youngblood-Barrett Construction & Engineering workers found themselves when they began restoring the main deck of the USS Alabama, a storied World War II battleship.

The USS Alabama has a remarkable past. One of four South Dakota–class battleships, the “Mighty A” was commissioned in 1942. It deployed first to the Atlantic and then to the Pacific, where it earned nine battle stars for meritorious service. At 680 feet long and 108 feet wide, the “Heroine of the Pacific” had a wartime crew of 2,500 men.

By 1962, though, the Navy was ready to scrap it. That’s when the state of Alabama decided to acquire the ship and preserve it as a museum. The USS Alabama was moved to Mobile and opened to the public in January 1965.

Over the years, a few repairs were made, but much of the ship remained just the way it was during World War II. That included the original main deck, which was starting to deteriorate when the USS Alabama Battleship Commission, the owner and bond principal, decided to replace it with new teak.

Like any other project, only on board a ship

Like any construction project, there were aspects of the job that had to be worked out before Youngblood-Barrett could get a surety bond and the project could move forward. These challenges weren’t that much different from what most contractors face when they bid on a job. The just happened to involve a storied warship.

For example, the commission had to raise more than $8 million to pay for the restoration work, which it planned to do through donations. Contractors who’ve worked with private owners know that financing can be an issue if it isn’t backed by a construction loan or a line of credit that can be confirmed.

Sureties seek certainty that the financing is secure and adequate. A funding arrangement with a bank gives a surety a degree of confidence that the loan will be used for the project. In the case of the Alabama, the commission obtained a bank loan to ensure there would be enough funds to pay for the work and materials.

Subcontractor risks can be bonded back

The single largest part of the contract was for a specialty subcontractor hired to procure the teak, precision cut it and install it on the ship. This part of the project accounts for $6.5 million of the total cost, a considerable sum of money. Adding to this risk is the fact that the subcontractor is based in Florida and the wood must be transported to Mobile.

The solution from a surety perspective is to have specialty and critical-path subs bonded. Bonding back subs gives the general contractor financial security and helps mitigate the overall risk to the surety.

The subcontractor in this case is Teakdecking Systems Inc. in Sarasota, Florida. It’s likely there are few other companies in the U.S. that have the expertise, specialized equipment and skilled labor to undertake this kind of project. Teakdecking Systems is using 3-D mapping and laser cutting to ensure the new decking matches the Alabama’s original specifications. In fact, they’ve built a mockup of the battleship's deck at their Sarasota facility. As the teak is needed, it’s shipped to Mobile. By the time the job is finished, 23,000 square feet of new teak will have been installed.

Working in phases to keep the museum open

Another project-management challenge has been keeping the museum open while the work is performed. Maintaining a high-quality visitor experience during the renovation has been a top priority for the commission. In many ways, this is no different from a project owner that needs to have a business, hospital, school or road stay open during construction.

The USS Alabama project has been divided into five phases to be completed over a three-year period. This ensures that only one part of the ship is closed to visitors while the new decking is laid. The third phase is now nearing completion, and the final phase is scheduled to finish by July 2024.

However, stretching the project to three years in an area prone to high winds and hurricanes was a risk that had to be considered, too. The potential for storm damage and work delays in the Gulf Coast region is an issue that both contractors and sureties must address with increasing frequency. You can’t stop severe weather, but it helps to have a contingency plan and to be certain that commercial property, builders risk and other forms of insurance are fully funded.

In addition, the Alabama presented two other challenges worth noting:

1. In 1986, the ship was declared a National Historic Landmark. The renovation work must conform to the original methods of construction and design of the ship.

2. Lead, asbestos and other hazardous materials must be contained during demolition. Containment tents have been erected over the worksite, and workers use HEPA filters and wear HAZMAT suits.

A project is greater than the sum of its parts

Securing a surety bond on a project like this isn’t about one single thing. It’s a combination of factors. The old adage “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is very true in surety. When a contractor moves from simply looking at the pieces of a project to creating a strategy that pulls everything together to complete a job, it adds up to a good plan. It becomes something that a surety can get behind and support.

The relationship a contractor has with its surety is also a key consideration when bidding on a project that may have additional risks. Creating a partnership based on mutual trust where the contractor and surety can talk honestly about concerns and solutions helps smooth the way for a successful completion.

The USS Alabama renovation is a wonderful reminder of the value of surety and the ways it can mitigate risks and make projects possible. The commission estimates that more than 15 million people have visited the ship since it came to Mobile. Replacing the main deck means millions of future visitors will also have an opportunity to tread where history was made.

by Richard Sghiatti

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