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Cement that floats

What are these men doing, and what is all that metalwork? The clue is in the background, where the shape of a ship’s bow can be discerned. It’s the early 1900s, and the men are inside a mass of rebar, building a ship of cement.

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Norwegian Nicolay Fougner launched the first self-propelled, oceangoing ferrocement ship in 1917, the 84-foot Namsenfjord. Its success brought Fougner an invitation from the U.S. government to explore building them in America. The Fougner Concrete Shipbuilding Co. of Flushing Bay, New York, was organized, and two ships were launched.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, Alan Macdonald and Victor Poss designed America’s first ferrocement ship, the 6,125-ton steamer Faith, launched in 1918. A month later, President Woodrow Wilson, guiding the country through World War I, set up a government program known as the Emergency Fleet to oversee the construction of 24 ferrocement ships for wartime duty. The conflict ended with a dozen of the ships under construction; they were eventually completed and were used for transport and storage.

During World War II, ferrocement ships came to the fore. Citing critical steel shortages, the government contracted with McCloskey & Co. of Philadelphia for 24 self-propelled concrete ships, built at the 6,000-worker Hookers Point, Florida, yard. It also contracted with a pair of West Coast builders for the construction of engineless cement vessels that tugs could tow. These ferrocement barges, or FCBs, proved useful in the D-Day invasion of Europe, where they served in harbor defense as floating pontoons and for fuel and munitions transportation.

Ferrocement construction also is still occasionally used for building recreational boats, proponents citing it as an inexpensive and relatively easy construction technique.

This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue.