Navy warships ‘Corvette’ in Duluth for commissioning

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The port of Duluth is accustomed to the comings and goings of slow, barge-like freighters, thousand feet long, ballasted with huge cargoes of iron ore bound for the steel mills of the lower Great Lakes.

But it’s not every day that a high-tech Navy combat vessel, which can travel over 45 miles per hour and move nimbly from side to side at using water jet engines, stops under the overhead lift.

“It’s really cool to drive. Think of a Corvette on a dragway,” Commander Alfonza White, the ship’s captain, said during a Thursday tour of the USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul.

White refers to the sports car, but the USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul also fits the original meaning of the word small, fast warship.

The nearly 400-foot-long slate-gray ship arrived in Duluth Monday with a crew of about 100 officers and enlisted sailors, ahead of its scheduled commissioning ceremony Saturday morning. The event will mark the ship’s official entry into the United States Navy.

The “Littoral Combat Ship” was built by Lockheed Martin and Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Marinette, Wisconsin. With a shallow draft, it is designed to operate in waters up to 25 miles from shore.

The vessel is not propelled by a traditional propeller, but instead uses water jets – huge versions of those found on jet skis. Electronic maintenance manager Joseph Varello said they allow the ship to slow down and speed up faster than any other Navy vessel.

“Think of an Olympic-sized pool,” explained Cmdr. White. “And think about moving that volume of water every second through our propulsion system. So that’s how much thrust vector we’re generating.

Commander Alfonza White and Senior Command Chief Edward Pare speak on the flight deck of the USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul.

Dan Kraker | MPR News

The ship was originally scheduled to be commissioned in Duluth last spring, about a year after it was christened and launched in June 2019. But it was delayed to fix a flaw in its propulsion system.

The USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul is the second Navy ship to honor the Twin Cities, although ships have been named after each city twice before.

The first United States Navy warship named Minneapolis-Saint Paul was a submarine launched in 1983 that participated in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. This USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul was the first submarine to carry Tomahawk missiles used in strikes against Iraq during the Gulf War. It was decommissioned in 2007.

This is the first time a Navy vessel has been commissioned in the Port of Duluth-Superior. And it’s the first time a Navy ship has visited Duluth since the 1990s, when Navy craft made regular visits to the Great Lakes.

Crew members said it was a bit stressful navigating the ship in tighter spaces, such as the overhead lift, when they are used to navigating the ocean.

Varello described him as driving a “billion dollar warship. So having that weight on your shoulders is already immense. But when you’re driving in a tight area, yes, it does get a bit hectic, but it’s definitely a rewarding feeling.

The commissioning ceremony takes place Saturday at 10 a.m. in Duluth. The Navy will broadcast the event live.

The USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul will then depart for its homeport of Naval Station Mayport, Florida on Monday. Cmdt. White said it would take about 30 days to complete the trip through the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence Seaway and along the Atlantic coast.

Wide shot of the USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul

The USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul at the Duluth Upper Port Authority.

Dan Kraker | MPR News

Arriving in Duluth this week was something of a homecoming for Commander Bryan Kemmitz, a native of Birchwood, Wis. When he was growing up, he frequently traveled to Duluth with his family to fish, hike, and enjoy Lake Superior.

“When you’re on the lake that size and you come out on the walkway fin, it feels like the ocean,” Kemmitz said. “And it’s only when you get a little bit closer that suddenly it starts to settle in, that ‘wait a second, I’m not in the ocean. It’s a different world. But it’s been fun.

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