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Welcome to the rolled-up-sleeves Navy: a day in port on Acadia's `fast cruise'

Tied up amid the cruisers and destroyers of the Pacific Fleet, the USS Acadia looks like a workhorse among thoroughbreds. Its bow is blunt instead of rakish. Its beam is wide where others' are sleek. Welcome to the world of the rolled-up-sleeves Navy. The Acadia is a destroyer tender, a floating repair yard that is perhaps as crucial to fleet strength as its more glamorous warship colleagues.

Acadia's commander, Capt. Francis Harness, United States Naval Reserve, boasts not of firepower but of lube-oil carrying capacity. He says his ship also has ``one of the finest dental departments afloat.''

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Launched in 1979, the Acadia is designed primarily to service Spruance-class destroyers. But in a pinch it could provide anything from hull patches to podiums for all types of Navy ships.

``We can even do repairs on nuclear propulsion plants,'' says Capt. Harness.

The Acadia doesn't cruise out of its berth at the San Diego Navy Yard very often. On the day of a reporter's visit, the ship is in the middle of what the Navy calls a ``fast cruise,'' and what a layman might term ``pretending to be at sea.''

Crew members are wearing flotation vests and hard hats and rushing about to lifeboat stations. The public address system is blaring the water temperature and the direction and number of kilometers to the closest landfall -- while the pier is in fact all of 10 feet away.

But on a mission during fleet operations the Acadia would be out there with the battle group. The ship would anchor on the edge of the battle zone, most likely in the shelter of a nearby bay, though on the open ocean if no protection were available.

Other logistics ships would accompany the fleet. Besides tenders, a typical carrier task force would have in its wake an underway replenishment group of oilers, ammunitions ships, and combat store ships.

While the public may sometimes feel the entire Navy consists of ``Top Gun'' actor Tom Cruise and a refurbished battleship, US warships would have only a few days of fight in them if it weren't for this logistics chain. More than one-third of the ships bought during the Reagan defense spend-up of 1982 through 1985 were auxiliaries.

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``The worldwide operational capability of the US Navy. . .could not exist without the services of the hard-working auxiliary ships,'' concludes a recent Congressional Budget Office report on the requirements of a 600-ship fleet.

Every 18 months or so the crew takes the Acadia to sea for a cruise to the Indian Ocean or some overseas destination. While abroad, the crew enjoys such experiences as spending two days lashed to a loaded ammunition ship with lifeless engines, in a gale.

But for the most part Acadia's service to the Navy takes place right here in the harbor, lending a hand to frigates and destroyers with nagging maintenance problems.

It is a spacious ship, far roomier inside than a cruiser, for instance. It is also one of the few ships in the Navy to include women in its crew. Eleven of 43 officers are female, as are 200 of 1,300 enlisted personnel.

Acadia does indeed have a dental clinic large enough to make Georgetown Dental Associates in Washington envious. Along with the usual departments -- a huge machine shop, carpenters, a foundry -- the ship has some touches of the unexpected. A movie projector repair shop, at sea? A graphics department? Watch and typewriter repair?

As the crew is quick to point out during a morning's tour of the ship, much of its work revolves around the peculiarities of Navy equipment. The sheet metal crew is hard at work making weapons lockers, not the sort of thing its civilian counterparts do.

One of the tasks the optics repair division performs frequently is pumping nitrogen into ship-bridge binoculars to keep them from fogging during bad weather. Electronics gets a lot of broken R390 radio receivers, which have many tubes and moving parts -- thus antiques in the microchip world of today.

``They don't even teach this in schools anymore,'' says Chief Petty Officer Bob Barrett, holding up a 390 with evident disdain.

Down in the engine-repair room they are tired of working on a particular type of British whale-boat motor for which it is impossible to get parts.

The clock shop works mainly on the products of the Chelsea Clock Company, of Chelsea, Mass., the firm that supplies most Navy timepieces.

Something about these jobs and concerns is refreshing after a month spent studying the US military's latest weaponry. The Acadia has no billion-dollar fire-control radars, 2,000-mile range precision cruise missiles, or 105-millimeter cannons with night-vision sights. Not a single ship officer offers a briefing on the dire nature of the Soviet threat.

What Acadia does have is a group of sailors standing around looking as if they wished they could take off their life vests and have lunch. Because of the ``fast cruise'' exercise, little repair work is getting done.

In the wood shop a few workers are gathered around a bench. Are they working on a piece of particular importance to the frigate USS Albert David, which is today lashed alongside?

``No,'' says Petty Officer Cathy Scali, cheerfully. ``We're making retirement plaques.''

Next: the Navy's elite commandos

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