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Berth of a museum?

PEOPLE WAITED in a milelong line to see the USS John F. Kennedy when it docked for a weekend at the North Jetty in South Boston earlier this month. The 82,000-ton aircraft carrier, soon to be decommissioned, had barely departed before cries went up to bring it back permanently as a floating museum.

The idea is intriguing, but no one should be planning a nautical outing anytime soon. The Navy doesn't abide hasty reuses for its decommissioned warships. And it doesn't appear to be nostalgic in choosing between mothballing a ship and placing it on so-called "donation hold" status -- in which the ship is available for acquisition by a nonprofit organization but can still be brought back to service in an emergency. Nothing less than a superb business plan is likely to get the attention of the secretary of the Navy, warn those who keep such museums afloat.

Of the five US aircraft carriers now operating as museums, the USS Midway Museum in San Diego is the gold standard. Roughly 800,000 visitors board the ship each year, according to Midway's marketing director, Scott McGaugh. The action doesn't stop when the sun goes down. Corporate parties, conventioneer dinners, and dances take place on the flight deck some 200 nights each year. Councilor Stephen Murphy of Boston sensed the spectacular tourism potential of a carrier when he raised the banner for berthing the USS Kennedy in Boston for good. But the gulf between idea and implementation is vast.

The Midway opened to the public in 2004 after 12 years of planning that required $8 million in privately raised funds. More than three dozen permits were needed to site the ship at a wharf in San Diego. The initial application to the Navy ran 3,000 pages long, including a 365-day-a-year maintenance plan.

"We approached it as a business, not a Navy alumni clubhouse," says McGaugh. Supporters in Boston had best be prepared to approach the task in the same hard-headed manner.

The USS Kennedy would make a spectacular complement to the USS Constitution and the USS Cassin Young, a World War II destroyer, berthed in the Charlestown Navy Yard. But the site can't accommodate the Kennedy's 36.7-foot draft, the difference between the waterline and the bottom of the ship. In Boston, nothing short of Massport's North Jetty is deep enough to hold the Kennedy, which would be another limiting factor.

To begin the slow voyage of bringing the ship to Boston, USS Kennedy supporters should make a first call for information at the Virginia-based Historic Naval Ships Association, which provides assistance and information on more than 100 member ships. Supporters need to be both diligent and patient. Four years passed between the time the Kennedy's keel was laid and its commission in 1968. The launching of a USS Kennedy Museum could take even longer.