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Largest vessel ever at Port of Olympia demonstrates versatility of smaller ports

By Judith Warren,
833d Transportation Battalion

On a typical spring evening in the northwest, the largest vessel ever to berth at the Port of Olympia, Wash., was towed through the fog and drizzle.
The 950-foot USNS Pililaau arrived to discharge 600 vehicles and containers from Southwest Asia.
The Port of Olympia, located on Budd Inlet at the head of Puget Sound, recently demonstrated its capability to handle the largest vessel the military uses to transport cargo.
Major West Coast ports have increasing success with container traffic. As such, smaller, more versatile ports like Olympia are handling more Roll-on/Roll-off and break-bulk traffic. The Port of Olympia has three modern, deepwater berths with a total length of 1,750 feet and a load capacity of 1,000 lbs per cubic foot, and a flexible operations schedule that the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command’s 833d Transportation Battalion (Seattle) was looking for.
In 2004, for the first time in 17 years, the 833d Transportation Battalion arranged to bring deploying military equipment and cargo to the Port of Olympia for loading on a Navy Military Sealift Command vessel. Six subsequent vessels have been loaded or discharged there. The most significant demonstration of the small port’s capabilities occurred in May 2005.
The USNS Pililaau is one of 20 large, medium speed Roll-on/Roll-off vessels belonging to the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command. The ship’s seven decks have a cargo carrying capacity of more than 380,000 square feet – equivalent to eight football fields. It is crewed by 30 merchant mariners, and is named for Army Private First Class Herbert K. Pililaau who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in Korea in 1951.
This mission is significant because it is the first LMSR to call at the Port of Olympia, said chief of terminal operations Phil Fantozzi. “Because of the size of the ship, we had to coordinate closely with the Military Sealift Command and the Puget Sound Pilots Association to make sure that the channel was deep enough and that there were no physical obstructions to a port call at Olympia,” he said.
“A successful mission here with an LMSR shows that Olympia can handle the largest cargo vessels that the military uses, so increases our options for deployments of military forces,” said Fantozzi.
“The intent in bringing in this size vessel is simply to see if it can be done,” said Lt. Col. Mike Balser, commander, 33d Transportation Battalion. “It’s unlikely there’d be another ship of equal size coming to Olympia anytime soon, but in times of national emergency, we should know what all our options are.”

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