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Wheel of Life Will Turn Many Times Before This Ship Puts to Sea Again

March 20, 1986|TIM WATERS

More than 3,200 ships sailed into the Port of Los Angeles last year. Most stayed two or three days before moving on to other ports in other parts of the world.

Such is life in the shipping lanes.

Consider, now, the Muscat Cement, a 525-foot-long vessel that slipped into the port about eight weeks ago, sidled up to Berth 134 in Wilmington, shut off its motors and has been silent ever since.

Indeed, before the Muscat budges from its new berth, many motorists who see its giant gray hull from the Harbor Freeway will probably change cars or careers. Some will change spouses. Still others will have babies, grow rich or poor, move to other states or retire.

Through it all, the Muscat Cement, complete with a captain and crew, will remain anchored. The vessel isn't going anywhere until at least 1991.

"It's an unusual ship," said Robert Smith, president of Pasadena-based Falcon Pacific Inc., which owns the Liberian-registered vessel. "To my knowledge, it's the first time such a ship has been in the United States."

Port officials agree that the Muscat's arrival locally marks the first time a ship of its kind has come to this country. Simply put, the vessel is a floating building that deals in one thing and one thing only--dry cement. It stores the cement in its own mammoth silo as it is unloaded from other ships, and then transfers it in bulk form or bags onto waiting trucks. The ship is equipped with machinery for bagging the cement.

Before the ship sailed to Los Angeles, it had been in the Middle East, where such vessels have been used for years. "When OPEC started spending money like water there was a great need for cement, but there were no dock facilities to handle it," said Paul St. Onge, a marketing specialist with the port.

The Muscat hasn't always led such a life. It was built in Japan 18 years ago to transport oil and iron ore, and it was originally 765 feet long. According to "Jane's Merchant Ships," which keeps track of such things, the vessel has undergone four name changes since 1973. In 1979, for instance, its name was changed from the Ivory Sun to Apache.

But at some point in the vessel's life, 240 feet were chopped off its hull to make it more buoyant for handling cement. Sometime after 1981, its name was changed again to the present one. Although Muscat is the capital of the Arabian state of Oman, Smith said he had heard that the vessel was named after the grape used to make muscatel wine. "I couldn't tell you why," he said.

Smith said his company was formed by its parent firm, Georgia-based Falcon Cement Co., expressly to operate the ship in Los Angeles. And although the ship isn't going anywhere soon, he said a crew of about 20 sailors will be aboard the vessel at all times because Liberian law requires it. The sailors will maintain the vessel.

Falcon had planned to have the ship in operation by now, Smith said, but has had to spend a great deal of time obtaining permits from a number of government entities such as the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Falcon also is in the process of negotiating with four separate unions, including the longshoremen's, to work the ship, he said.

"It's just a large piece of machinery to get moving," Smith said. "You have to jump through a lot of hoops."

Nevertheless, Smith is confident the ship will start operations April 1 at the berth, which port officials said was not being used before Falcon signed a five-year contract. The port will earn more than $250,000 annually in wharfage fees, and collect other fees based on the amount of cement the ship handles.

Smith declined to say how much cement the company expects to handle with the vessel, but he said the firm is optimistic.

"Obviously, you have to have a market, and Los Angeles is an enormous one sitting right by the water."

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