Last side-launch initiated by launch system creator, James Mackie
Under near perfect weather conditions earlier this month, Fincantieri Marinette Marine launched the final Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ship in its traditional dynamic side-launch fashion. At the trigger poised to initiate the process was a familiar person, wearing his signature style shirt and trying unsuccessfully to contain his exuberance.
James Mackie, clad in one of his preferred “aloha” shirts - one with a maize-colored Michigan “M” embroidered on the chest pocket - was excitedly smiling as he arrived several hours ahead of the ceremony. He knew his way around the shipyard, but he also noted how much the facilities had changed over the years.
And Mackie should know. The 72-year-old Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. native came to Marinette in 1976, after graduating from University of Michigan. Mackie joined the engineering team working in what was at the time, a dirt shipyard with only a few buildings on its 50-acre riverside lot.
Walking along the shipyard’s waterfront in 2023, Mackie recalled what the shipyard looked like in the 1970s. “I am absolutely blown away [at the improvements made]. I love what you’ve done.”
When Mackie began working at then-Marinette Marine Corp., one of his first major projects was to design a system capable of launching vessels of various sizes and shapes into the Menominee River adjacent to the shipyard. What he built has become a critical component of each vessel’s history…its first dramatic plunge into the aquatic world.
Mackie admitted to being cautiously concerned for the initial launch back in late 1977. “Man, was I nervous!” he offered. He was confident in the calculations and work completed. The evening prior to the first launch, one of the shipyard leaders, Jim Derusha, summoned Mackie to meet him at the shipyard after hours. Mackie obliged and hurried to the now-dark shipyard to find the vice president of operations hopping out of his familiar red truck in socks - no shoes - to take one last look at preparations and the system.
As he recalled this meeting, Mackie said that he and Jim Derusha walked through the entire system, confirming calculations and covering contingencies. In the end, Derusha looked Jim in the eye and declared, “We are ready.” Mackie was relieved to have his boss’ confidence, but until they had a successful launch, Mackie continued to carry an invisible-but-weighty burden on his shoulders.
To make matters worse, Mackie remembered a vivid nightmare he had the week of the first launch in which the ship launched in the wrong direction and ended up on land. Physics and the force of gravity would obviously prevent that from ever happening, but the pressure of getting it right was important to Mackie, and he knew how many people were counting on him.
Mackie and the team orchestrated the initial launch, and his system was a resounding success. At the conclusion of the launch, Harold Derusha, then-president of Marinette Marine, came to Mackie, shook his hand, looked at him and said, “Now get back to work.”
Jim laughed as he recalled this moment. Memories seemed to swirl in his mind and his eyes glistened from pride of hard work realized.
Mackie retired from the Marinette shipyard in 2005, after 54 successful launches on his system. He was later invited back to help launch the first Navy Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ship, the USS Freedom (LCS 1), in 2006, as well as the final launch April 15, 2023, of the future USS Cleveland (LCS 31).
To say that Mackie relishes every launch is an understatement. The launch of LCS 31 marked the 70th vessel to enter service by way of his launch system. And he was there again to start the process that allows gravity to take the ship into water. As anticipated, Jim was his usual self, jumping up and down and yelling, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ The launch system worked flawlessly again.
In 2008, Mackie decided to “un-retire” and join the shipbuilding team at Austal USA in Mobile, Ala. There, he is a naval architect and dockmaster, and it’s no surprise that his teammates there appreciate his knowledge, experience and unquestionable love of shipbuilding.
Many Marinette Marine employees who knew Mackie flocked to the launch area in hopes of catching up with him. Jim was happy to see so many Marinette friends from decades past, and conversations typically turned to the next ship launch system: the shiplift under construction by Pearlson Shiplift Corp. Coincidentally, Jim went to college with two of Ray Pearlson’s sons. He maintains great respect for the Pearlson family and their maritime accomplishments.
Mackie remembered being impressed with Raymond Pearlson’s original shiplift design, as well as his personal drive to gain support and build a business around his brilliant invention. He thinks that the decision to use one at Marinette was a prudent call.
“You made a wise decision in going with the shiplift,” said Mackie. He emphasized the reduced risk and recovery aspects. “My ship launch system cannot do that,” he regretfully concluded with a wry smile.
Justin Slater, currently serving as the director of sales and marketing at Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding, was hired by Mackie years ago at FMM. Slater describes him with similar terms as others use: brilliant, humble, personable, and overwhelmingly competent. “He is quite a character, but also, he is one really smart gentleman,” Slater added.
“We are in a very unique industry,” said Mackie. “Most people see a ship and they have no clue about what it takes to build them, let alone what it takes to get them in the water.”
But Fincantieri does. We know that shipbuilding is a team sport, and when your team is comprised of people like Jim Mackie, you are destined for calculated success.