A ship's sad slide into ruination

By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2010; 5:43 PM

As a child living in Prince George's County in the 1960s, I remember a large, abandoned ocean liner-type vessel anchored in a cove next to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge on the Maryland side. I believe the vessel was white, with a single funnel. I remember asking my father, a county police officer, about it, and he noted that there had been problems - teenagers were using it as a hangout and so forth. Sure would love to know more about this mystery ship. Can you or your readers help?

Eileen Sefchuck, Severn

As we learned in last week's column, so long as they are out of the channel, properly marked and not a danger to others, vessels may anchor for extended periods in the Potomac River. These things have a tendency to end badly, however. Such was the case with a ship that Answer Man thinks may be the one the reader had in mind, although its ill-fated voyage dates from the 1970s, not the 1960s.

In 1974, a 127-foot, wooden-hulled former U.S. Navy minesweeper sailed under the Wilson Bridge and tied up at a dock just off the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria. The ship - christened the USS Goldfinch in 1944, now renamed the Aqualab - represented the dreams of a man named William H. Dunham, a shy former aeronautical engineer. Although Dunham protested when people said he was the Aqualab's owner (true ownership was never determined), he was the only person who lived aboard the vessel.

Dunham's plan was to find area furniture makers eager to buy Central American hardwood, hardwood that he would sail to Central America to procure. He hadn't been docked long in Alexandria when the City Council passed an ordinance banning vessels that didn't have city permission to tie up. The Aqualab didn't, so Dunham sailed it into the Potomac and dropped anchor just outside the Washington Channel.

In the winter of 1975, the ship slipped its anchor and drifted toward the bridge, where it became lodged atop a mud bank. And there it stayed. Dunham insisted that it was not derelict. "It's floating," he told a Post reporter - though only at high tide.

Anyone who has been around boats knows how they can sap the spirit and drain the wallet. Such apparently was the case with the Aqualab. The transmission needed fixing, those Central American hardwood contracts never came through and the District, concerned that the Aqualab might hit the bridge, took action. Dunham was charged with 40 counts, including failure to register the ship with a harbor master, abandonment of a sunken vessel and failure to display an anchor light. He was fined $3,450.

In November 1977, the city seized the Aqualab. Later that month, it put the ship up for auction. Bidding started at $1,000. It ended there, too. Only one person had shown up, and he didn't bite.

The city finally paid John Fiocca and Mike Freeman $4,520 to move the Aqualab. They raised the boat from the mud and towed it to Piscataway Creek.

That's where Post reporter Phil McCombs visited it. Salvagers were stripping its brass fittings. Portholes, instruments and the like would be sold off.

McCombs traced the history of the ship, which had been built for World War II but never saw action. It was decommissioned in 1957 and sold in 1960 to a vocational college in Portland, Maine, to train oceanographers. Dunham was in the group that bought it from the college in the early 1970s, first planning to go lobstering, then to transport hardwood.

"It's a shame," Freeman said as he stripped the Aqualab. "I love the water. I hate to see a ship die."

All aboard for Children's Hospital

Children's Hospital has always been the place Washington area parents turn to when their sons and daughters need help. I hope you can help those moms and dads who may not have insurance. We keep hearing that charity is down this year, but the need is just as great.

The money we raise during our annual fund drive is used to pay the bills of uninsured children. To make a tax-deductible donation, send a check or money order (payable to "Children's Hospital") to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md., 21297-1390.

To donate with a credit card, go online to washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital or call 301-565-8501.

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