It might be the fastest cargo ship in world, but the US Navy's Capella moved at a snail's pace coming out of a dry dock yesterday in South Boston.
Amidst a chorus of ear-piercing whistles and the roar of 3,000-horsepower engines, five tugboats wrestled the 946-foot behemoth free of the dry dock and a narrow channel along Black Falcon Pier.
The Capella is part of the US Navy's Military Sealift fleet, capable of reaching 33 knots and crossing the Atlantic in less than a week. It had just undergone a month of bottom cleaning and routine maintenance at Boston Ship Repair in South Boston.
But before it could sail back to the naval base at Newport News, Va., ready to load tanks and trucks for the Persian Gulf, the Capella needed a little shove from the red-striped tugboats from across the harbor at Boston Towing and Transportation in East Boston.
The job took two hours under the midday sun, but it was wind, not heat, that slowed the project.
"We almost canceled because of the wind," said docking pilot Jeff Smith, aboard the Capella to radio directions to tugboats.
The scene of a flotilla of tugs so close to the huge ship created an unusual image on the sea.
When tugboat captain Scott Erickson caught sight of another tug, the 45-foot Heidi, on the far side of the Capella's bow, he said, "She looks like a fly on an elephant."
But the so-called elephant is a speedy giant on the open sea. One of eight high-speed cargo ships in the Navy fleet, the Capella was built in Rotterdam in the early 1970s for use as a commercial container ship. But the 120,000-horsepower engines guzzle fuel and are too costly for private use.
The Navy bought the Capella and seven others of the same design class in 1981 and 1982 and retrofitted them with massive deck cranes and big doors for loading tanks and Humvees. The ships carry up to 42 crewmembers, all of them civilians.
Despite a hull shaped for speed, the Capella is top-heavy, reaching almost 150 feet from the waterline and catching every gust coming from the southwest.
"The wind will pull us over a little bit, and I don't want us to be jerking it around," came the voice over the radio from a tugboat skipper, as he tried to move the Capella, which is 106 feet wide, through the 127-foot-wide dry dock.
"I'm trying to get this bow up, but I've got some bad lines," said another captain over the radio.
Smith, sounding like a mariner from a bygone era, said, "Well, maybe Mother Nature will take care of it."
But by 2 o'clock, the tugboats had pushed the Capella clear of the channel and pointed it south for the voyage back to Virginia.