The 'Corvette' of Navy warships in Duluth for commissioning

USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul
The nearly 400-foot long USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul at the Duluth Superior Port Authority ahead of its commissioning ceremony on Saturday, May 21.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

The port of Duluth is used to the comings and goings of slow-moving, barge-like, thousand-foot long freighters, weighted down with hulking loads of iron ore bound for steel mills in the lower Great Lakes.

But it’s not everyday that a high-tech Navy combat ship, that can travel faster than 45 miles per hour and move nimbly from side to side using water jet engines, pulls up under the Aerial Lift Bridge.

“It is definitely cool to drive. Think of a Corvette out on a dragway,” said Commander Alfonza White, the ship’s Captain, during a Thursday tour of the USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul.

White is referring to the sports car, but the USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul also fits the early meaning of the word of a small, fast warship.

The nearly 400-foot long, slate gray ship arrived in Duluth on Monday with a crew of about 100 officers and enlisted sailors, ahead of its commissioning ceremony scheduled for Saturday morning. The event will mark the vessel’s official entry into the U.S. Navy.

The “Littoral Combat Ship” was built by Lockheed Martin and Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Marinette, Wis. With a shallow draft, it is designed to operate in waters out to 25 miles from shore.

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The ship isn’t powered by a traditional propeller, but instead uses water jets — huge versions of those found on jet skis. Electronics maintenance officer Joseph Varello said they allow the vessel to slow down, and accelerate, faster than any other Navy ship.

“Think of an Olympic sized swimming pool,” explained Cmdr. White. “And think of moving that volume of water every second through our propulsion system. So that is how much thrust vector that we generate.”

Two men speak on a boat
Commander Alfonza White and Command Senior Enlisted Leader Edward Pare speak on the deck of the USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

The ship was originally scheduled to be commissioned in Duluth last spring, about a year after it was christened and launched in June, 2019. But it was delayed to fix a flaw in its propulsion system.

The USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul is the second naval ship to honor the Twin Cities, although ships have been named after each individual city twice before.

The first U.S. Navy warship named Minneapolis-Saint Paul was a submarine launched in 1983 that took part in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. That USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul was the first submarine to carry Tomahawk missiles used in strikes against Iraq during the Gulf War. It was decommissioned in 2007.

This is the first time a Navy ship has ever been commissioned in the port of Duluth-Superior. And it’s the first time a Navy ship has been to Duluth since the 1990s, when Navy watercraft conducted regular tours of the Great Lakes.

Crew members said it was a bit stressful navigating the ship through tighter spaces, such as the Aerial Lift Bridge, when they’re accustomed to in the ocean.

Varello described it as driving a “billion dollar warship. So having that weight on your shoulders is already immense. But when you're driving through a tight squeeze, yeah, it gets a little hectic, but it's definitely a rewarding feeling.”

The commissioning ceremony takes place at 10 a.m. Saturday in Duluth. The Navy will livestream the event.

The USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul will then depart for its home port, Naval Station Mayport, Florida, on Monday. Cmdr. White said it would take about 30 days to complete the journey through the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence Seaway and down the Atlantic coast.

USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul wide photo
The USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul at the Duluth Superior Port Authority.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Arriving in Duluth this week was something of a homecoming for Commander Bryan Kemmitz, who’s originally from Birchwood, Wis. When he was growing up he frequently traveled to Duluth with his family to fish, hike and enjoy Lake Superior.

“When you're out on the lake that size, and you step out on the bridge wing, it looks like the ocean,” Kemmitz said. “And it's not until you get a little closer that suddenly it starts to set in, that ‘wait a second, I'm not in the ocean. This is different world.’ But it's been fun.”