Viral Voyages
Battleship New Jersey’s dry docking sparks global buzz
By Jayne Jacova Feld

When the Battleship New Jersey left Camden’s harbor in late March for its first dry docking since 1991, it was seen as a necessary disruption. The nation’s most decorated battleship was being towed to the Philadelphia Naval Yard for long overdue maintenance. The floating museum would be out of operation during its peak season for proms, sleepovers and other revenue-generating events before returning to the waterfront in June. 

What initially seemed like a logistical and financial headache became a blockbuster moment. Instead of abandoning ship, the museum’s staff made the Naval Yard their temporary base. 

During the 2+ months the ship underwent repairs, they gave weekend tours of the dry-docked vessel that attracted thousands of visitors, some from as far away as China, South America and Germany, says Executive Director Marshall Spevak. Lured by the opportunity to take what was billed as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to look at the underbelly of the most decorated battleship in U.S. Naval history, they donned hard hats and steel-toed shoes and climbed down 150 steps into the muddy below-sea-level basin.

“Back in January, we joked that if every ticket was sold, we could raise a million dollars,” Spevak says. “We laughed that off, but then we hit that goal. To be honest, we’re still a little bit in shock. It’s just  incredible and gratifying that people care and want to help preserve the ship.”

One man even took a 24-hour trip from California just to get up close to the vessel’s four 20-ton propellers, view its massive rudders and touch the hull.

“There’s just a lot of history of this battleship in our region,” Spevak says. “While many of the World War II and Korean vets are not with us anymore, a lot of people on our tours had parents or grandfathers who served on the ship,” he adds. “Others were among the thousands in the region who worked at the Philadelphia Naval yard and physically built the ship or worked on repairs. And since this is actually the 4th time New Jersey has been in this specific drydock, there’s a lot of nostalgia around that as well.”

All told, more than 5,000 people took guided tours – most paying $225 for the standard tour while others shelled out $1,000 per person for the premium ones led by Curator Ryan Szimanski. Dry dock merchandise has been a hit – not just the usual Yeti cups, t-shirts and caps, but also pieces of the ship removed during repairs. Small bottles of battleship rust, for instance, sold for $6.99 each. The proceeds have more than made up for the projected loss of income during the forced downtime, allowing for a few additional projects beyond the scope of the $10 million renovation budget, says Spevak.

The largest and most distinguished of the 4 Iowa-class battleships built during World War II, the New Jersey was christened on the first anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1942. It went on to earn 19 battle stars during its years of service. Some 45,000 sailors and Marines served on its decks in World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars as well as conflicts in the Middle East before it was decommissioned in 1991. 

Camden became its permanent home in 2001, weeks after the 9/11 attacks. In the 23 years since, the floating museum has been one of the state’s most popular tourist destinations. 

The battleship’s departure for the dry docking drew thousands of spectators, who cheered as it was towed by 4 tugboats out of the harbor. First it went to Paulsboro to be prepped for the dry dock, before continuing to Dock #3, the basin where it was first launched from and returned for repairs on 2 other occasions over the years. 

Months before the dry docking, the mission had already captured the public’s imagination. The Battleship has Szimanski, the curator, and Director of Education Libby Jones to thank for that. A YouTube channel they created at the height of the pandemic in 2020 has built a devoted audience. Dozens of videos weaving Szimanski’s commentary with archival footage about the New Jersey and naval history have garnered nearly 120 million views. Many of the channel’s 245,000 subscribers were riveted by daily updates during the dry docking.  

“People come to the ship just to meet Ryan,” says Spevak. “It seems that the more oddball, arcane thing he talks about, the more views we get. He’s still getting used to the fame that comes with it.”

Szimanski says it’s still shocking to be recognized in public for the videos he does as a labor of love. Yet the maritime influencer moniker is warranted as nearly 140 people were willing to pay $1,000 for the upgraded tours he led.

“Growing up, my role models were scientists like Bob Ballard, who found the wreck of the battleship Bismarck, and authors like Paul Stillwell, who published peer-reviewed history books about battleships,” he says. 

On the other hand, he says, the idea that naval historians and researchers are to be revered holds some appeal. “As long as people like that are valued, we will be able to preserve culturally significant artifacts like Battleship New Jersey.” 

Now that the dry dock is wrapped up and the Battleship is back home in Camden, it’s almost as if the exciting interruption never happened, says Spevak. 

“The fun thing about this whole project is that you can no longer see any of the work that was done during the dry dock,” he says. “That is what made the tours so special. It truly was a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Barring unforeseen circumstances, no one will get a chance to see that view again until the 2050s.”  

July 2024
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