Ready or Not, Here She Comes: The USNS Comfort, Near the End of Her Useful Life as a Hospital Ship, Sails Once More into the Breach on President Trump’s Orders

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The USNS Comfort, frequently given a pass on safety repairs in the past, is headed once more into the breach with her scheduled maintenance radically shortened, on a mission to fight the Corona Virus and vitally serve as a “photo op” illustrating the nation’s resolve.

The good news is: the hospital ship does not need to traverse the North Atlantic. She just needs to make it from Norfolk to New York – and then dock. 

And whatever the mechanical condition inside, the outsides of the hospital ships are magnificent with their all-white hulls and superstructure accented with bold red crosses. They are vital “photo ops” that literally “show the flag” — that the whole of the country is here to help New York with 1,000 sorely needed hospital beds.

The bad news for the Comfort is: She can’t do this for very much longer and Navy planners have acknowledged she needs extensive “service life extension programs” if she is to be on call as a ship that goes anywhere in any season in the years ahead. 

The exact nature and status of her current maintenance is not known.  She was scheduled for a minimum of two weeks, but that was abruptly shortened when President Trump said she would take up station in New York on Monday. 

The US Coast Guard, which oversees the inspection of USNS ships, declined to answer queries. And the Coast Guard inspection data base was closed to the press and public in 2019.  The Navy said late this week that the ship is safe and that Navy ships never sail unless that is so.

But the records that do exist show that the Comfort was deployed successfully to Puerto Rico in 2017 even though Coast Guard records showed she had three “835 – No Sail” citations pending.  

Whether those citations ever were satisfied is unclear from available public records.  The Coast Guard required that a plan to resolve the deficiencies be filed for “835 extensions.” Records show that that request for a plan was met – but not whether the filed plan was ever acted on. 

It was common up until 2018 for USNS and sealift vessels to get an informal pass from Coast Guard Inspectors and the American Bureau of Shipping, a private ship survey agency.  

“Inspectors would issue 835’s and say ‘get this fixed within six months,’” a former Coast Guard officer said.  “Then, six months from then, the inspectors would, say, ‘oh, you’re not done. Okay, get this fixed within six months.’”

The standards tightened after an American flag merchant ship, the SS El Faro, sank in 2015 and the NTSB and Coast Guard cracked down on inspections after their 2017 reports. 

USNS Comfort

The deployment to Puerto Rico was without incident and was considered a success with no reports of equipment or propulsion failure.  The deployment to New York City should be an easy run for the ship, but the busy traffic and intricacies of an urban waterway could be challenging. 

“Can they get her to Manhattan from Norfolk?” asked one maritime expert. “Yeah. But I hope they have a lot of tugs just in case.”

The vessel can provide up to 1,000 beds. The thought is that she will be able to handle non-virus patients, freeing up conventional hospital beds on land.

Nearly as important is the symbolism of the ships. With their gleaming white exteriors and bold red crosses, they illustrate the resolve to help, whether in storm-ravaged Puerto Rico or New York City in the age of pandemics.

Here is a lit of USNS Comfort inspection records from past years. The “no sail” items all dealt with possible fire hazards. It was unclear from the Coast Guard records whether the 835 items were repaired — or whether just plans for repair were filed.



Steam Turbine (propulsion)CasingVessel’s low pressure turbine casing was damaged during maintenance. Conduct NDT on casing and provide report to attending CGMI. Provide turbine technician’s survey report to attending CGMI prior to operating turbine.
Feedwater/Condensate Water SystemPumpVessel’s #1 condensate pump motor for the main condenser is inoperable. Two means shall be provided for discharging condensate from the main condenser. Make repairs to the motor iaw manufacturer’s specifications or renew as original, to the satisfaction of the OCMI. Conduct operational testing of the pump/motor to the satisfaction of the attending CG MI.
Steam Turbine (propulsion)CasingL.P. has damage to out casing. Make repairs to the satisfaction of the attending CG Marine Inspector. Vessel is permited to proceed directly to scheduled shipyard in Boston MA. under her own power.
Fixed Pressure Water-Spraying Fire Extinguishing SystemPipingIssued 835 to submit plans to MSC for approval for re-programing of water mist system circuit PLC, demonstrate spray pattern test of zones 10 and 11 and proper designed operation to Coast Guard Marine Inspector.
Fixed Pressure Water-Spraying Fire Extinguishing SystemPipingIssued 835 to conduct spray pattern test of water mist system zone 1 SSDG to Coast Guard Marine Inspector.
Fixed Pressure Water-Spraying Fire Extinguishing SystemPipingIssued 835 to conduct flow test of water mist system zones 4, 5, 6 (=/+ 750 psi) and spray pattern test to Coast Guard Marine Inspector.
Combustible MaterialsPaints/Varnishes/Other FinishesIssued 835 to remove from ship or properly store in designated paint lockers pallets of paint temporarily stored in helo hanger.
Fixed Halon Fire Extinguishing SystemOperating ControlsO2N2 Producer Room 30 second time delay opened at 27 seconds, replace time delay and demonstrate satisfactory operation of O2N2 Producer Room fixed firefighting systems in the presence of a CG Marine Inspector.
Fixed Fire Detection SystemAnnual InspectionAnnual inspection of fire detection system and portable extinguishers incomplete. Schedule fire detection testing for CG attendance and provide servicing certificates.
Electric Generation Source (service)Power RequirementVessel’s #1, #2,& #3 ADG reverse power relays inoperable.  Demonstrate operation of reverse power relays to the satisfaction of CG MI.
Structural – A Class DivisionsBulkheads – Machinery SpacesOpen penetration in O2 space fire boundary bulkhead and ventilation pull cable.  Fill open penetrations to equivalent fire rating of the existing bulkhead to the satisfaction of CGMI.
Launching AppliancesWinchPort and Stbd tender hydraulic gauges inoperable.  Repair or replace gauges to the satisfcation of CGMI.
Embarkation Appliances/StationsAccessability#2 tender launching instructions are not posted.  Post instructions to the satisfaction of CGMI.
Steam Boiler (propulsion)Superheater Protection SystemVessel’s port super heater safety valve is leaking. Identify and repair leak to the satisfaction of CG MI.
Fixed Halon Fire Extinguishing SystemOperating ControlsEDG fire damper did not close, repair and demonstrate satisfactory operation of EDG fixed firefighting systems in the presence of a CG Marine Inspector.
Fixed Halon Fire Extinguishing SystemOperating ControlsAMR fire damper did not close, repair and demonstrate satisfactory operation of AMR fixed firefighting systems in the presence of a CG Marine Inspector.
Fixed Halon Fire Extinguishing SystemOperating ControlsAMR 68 second time delay opened at 64 seconds, replace time delay and demonstrate satisfactory operation of AMR fixed firefighting systems in the presence of a CG Marine Inspector.
Fixed Halon Fire Extinguishing SystemOperating ControlsAMR Engine Control Room ventilation did not shut down.  Determine if ventilation is required to shutdown and demonstrate satisfactory operation of AMR fixed firefighting systems in the presence of a CG Marine Inspector.
Steam Boiler (auxiliary/waste heat)PipingVessel’s auxiliary steam line to the reducing station is leaking in the lower engine room, adjacent to the water tight door. Identify and repair leak to the satisfaction of CGMI.
Launching AppliancesWinchLifeboat winch control switches for lifeboats 3, 5, 6, 8, & 10 are not of the spring type. Replace winch control switches with a spring type switch.
Launching AppliancesFallsStbd tender 1 wire falls come in contact with hydraulic hoses when falls are not under tension.  Install permanent chaffing gear to protect hydraulic hoses from the wire falls.
Public Address SystemLoudspeaker1MC inoperable from numerous locations throughout the ship. Identify and repair all inoperable 1MC speakers, submit report to USCG.
Manuals/Policy DocumentationVessel Specific Watch Policy/ProceduresVessel’s CG approved Periodic Safety Test Procedures (PSTP) have been updated. Submit updated PSTP’s to CG Marine Safety Center for approval.
Steam Turbine (propulsion)Valve, RegulatingVessel’s stbd boiler #2 burner assembly fuel valve does not operate properly(sticking). Repair or replace to the satisfaction of CG Marine Inspector.
Bilge Water Management SystemPumpBallast pump mechanical seal is leaking. Replace seal to satisfaction of CG MI.
Diesel Engine (propulsion/auxiliary-electric)Exhaust ManifoldADG #2 & #3 exhaust piping is exposed and lagging is deteriorated.  Replace lagging to the satisfaction of CG MI.
Electric Generation Source (service)Power RequirementSSDG low system voltage warning alarm does not activate at engine monitoring display.  Demonstrate operation to the satisfaction of CG MI
Vessel Safety ManagementCompany Responsibilities/AuthorityVessel currently has 03 CG 835’s with a 03 DEC 2017 due date.  Provide a written 835 extension request to include a detailed plan and time-line to USCG.
Fixed Pressure Water-Spraying Fire Extinguishing SystemPipingVessel’s water mist system’s 1″ piping was replaced with 1.25″ piping.  Provide Coast Guard Head Quarters approved plans of the modified water mist system to the local OCMI and demonstrate system operation to the satisfaction of the attending Coast Guard Marine Inspector.

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