Shipyard workers stream in to watch the launch of the Marlin-class container ship. Photo by Chris Jennewein
Shipyard workers stream in to watch the launch of the Marlin-class container ship. Photo by Chris Jennewein

In a nighttime ceremony before 3,400 shipyard workers and dignitaries, General Dynamics NASSCO on Saturday launched the world’s first natural-gas powered container ship.

After christening by Sophie Sacco — wife of Michael Sacco, president of the Seafarers International Union — the 754-foot-long Isla Bella slid into San Diego Bay on the high tide at 9:10 p.m. Fireworks erupted as the ship floated.

“Those of you in the cheap seats — this is your ship. Give yourselves a hand,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter to cheers from the thousands of workers surrounding the giant vessel at the shipyard in Barrio Logan.

Sophie Sacco christens the Isla Bella. Photo by Chris Jennewein

“This is American power,” said the member of the House Armed Services Committee, adding that in time of war, “the same people who built this ship would be building amphibious ships and frigates.”

The ship was under construction for two years, and a sister ship being built nearby will be launched in August. The two ships will be used for service to Puerto Rico by New Jersey-based TOTE Maritime, a transportation and logistics company.

NASSCO president Fred Harris called the event “a day of milestones for NASSCO, TOTE and the U.S. shipbuilding industry.”

The ship was designed by DSEC, a South Korean-based company that has partnered with NASSCO to build other commercial ships. By burning liquified natural gas, instead of the traditional bunker oil, the ship will be more efficient and significantly less polluting.

“Everything you’re seeing here is new,” said Anthony Chiarello, president and CEO of TOTE, but he predicted it would be the safest and most reliable container ship built. “God bless this great, American-built vessel.”

The two ships represent a $750 million investment by TOTE. The company has the youngest fleet exclusively serving U.S. ports under the Jones Act, which requires American-built ships and crews.

“You could not have ships like this without the Jones Act,” said Hunter after the launching.

NASSCO workers cut away giant wooden blocks supporting the bow of the ship. Photo by Chris Jennewein
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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.