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Chesapeake 1000 – a crane with a past

It is not often that mention of a 1,000-ton lift derrick barge can lead to talk of covert CIA operations, but the Chesapeake 1000 is an exception. Maritime Executive has noted that the Chesapeake 1000 (previously the Sun 800) was built at Sun Shipbuilding in 1972, the same year as a CIA spy ship called the Glomar Explorer. In fact the barge was built by Sun Ship for use in its own yard, and specifically to install the ultra-heavy components for the Glomar Explorer.

In the early 1970s the CIA decided to build a special ship that could retrieve a lost Soviet ballistic missile submarine from the seafloor off Hawaii. What would become the Glomar Explorer would, the CIA hoped, use its massive grab claw and lifting capability to scoop the submarine up and retrieve it in one piece.

However, it was obvious that the CIA could not make this plan public – and it is rather hard to keep secret the construction of such a vessel. What was needed was a cover story.

The CIA therefore asked the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes to help out. The future Glomar Explorer would be billed to the press as a Hughes-led expedition to prospect for deep-sea minerals in the Pacific. Even Sun Shipbuilding, which won the contract for construction, was not (apparently) cognizant of the real mission.

As tends to happen with secret CIA operations, the story eventually leaked. In 1975 government sources told journalists that the mission had been a partial success: Glomar Explorer arrived on site, deployed its claw, and retrieved the forward third of the submarine. Unfortunately the true objectives of the mission – to obtain the sub’s code books and missiles – were a failure, as the other two-thirds of the sub slipped back down to the bottom.

The Sun 800 was not on the Glomar Explorer, but it lifted the Glomar Explorer’s 630-ton gimbal onto the ship during construction. After that bespoke project, Sun Shipbuilding found itself with a super crane for which there would only be an infrequent need. It kept the Sun 800 on hand for other yard work, as well as marine construction and civil engineering projects, but it was eventually sold on to another shipyard, and subsequently to salvor Donjon Marine, which operates it today as the Chesapeake 1000.