GASCONADE, Mo. -- The old U.S. Navy hydrofoil ship currently resting in the Gasconade River could potentially see some expanded duties that would likely translate into major gains for tourism.
It's a project contemplated by officials that include Eliot James and wife Diana James, who are part of a 501c3 tax exempt nonprofit organization that owns the USS Aries on the Gasconade, Missouri, riverfront. The group placed a bid on and bought the vessel in 1996, with James is president of the USS Aries Hydrofoil Museum. Bob Meinhardt is the museum's curator and B.J. Meinhardt is treasurer. Both of the Meinhardts are full-time employees of the Aries group.
"The easy part was buying it from the Navy," James said, noting that national defense plans failed to secure a need for hydrofoils after the early 1990s, with the entire class being decommissioned and mothballed into eternal dormancy. The foils allow the hull to be lifted out of the water as a means of increasing speed. The Aries launched in 1983.
The Aries has been spruced up throughout its time in Missouri, with parts from other scrapped hydrofoil ships used for the restoration. All weaponry has been removed. It pulled in to the Gasconade riverfront for the first time in October 1997. In 2002, Diana James suggested creating the museum by means of the 501c3 status. Tax-deductible donations to the organization have helped pay for upkeep of the Aries, which has qualified for a ship donation program that enables the group to acquire parts from the Navy and state surplus.
The Aries group hopes to transport the ship to various sites, including Hermann -- via a tugboat -- to allow on-board tours while tied up at the riverfront and through visits at other maritime museums in shared promotions, with educational and training components also envisioned. The Aries is registered with the U.S. Coast Guard as an attraction vessel. Additional renovations and repairs will be necessary before the project can take on the new life. Gasconade Harbor would remain as a home base. The availability of the Aries to make the traveling tours will also be dependent on weather conditions and the status of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"This has been a plan since 2002," said James of the publicly-supported endeavor. He added that the most inexpensive means of refurbishment will be sought, and that an administrator will be needed.
"The main thing is for us to develop a business plan," he said. "The safety of the ship is paramount."
The Aries still represents the highest level of technology built for the Navy, according to James.
"This is the first metric ship" the Navy ever built, he said, and relied on computer controls. "They fly in very deep water. It's very, very maneuverable….It was built as a flying ship. It works like an aircraft."
Foils deploy fore and aft, helping enable the vessel to "fly" over the water at speeds up to 70 mph. Its arsenal included anti-ship Harpoon missiles and flares that could deter an incoming missile strike. The hydrofoils can even navigate through very rough weather.
The most recent improvements have been accomplished by such entities as the Boy Scouts and the all-volunteer Ohio Naval Militia, which painted the vessel in its traditional gray color two years ago.
Tours are available during weekends in the summer (typically May through October), from 10 or 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Aries is also available for tours by appointment. Organized tours are another option. Contacts may be made through the website, www.ussaries.org.
Past Aries crew members have visited Gasconade County to see their old ship. The International Hydrofoil Society had expressed some consideration in hosting its 50th anniversary celebration in Hermann. The nonprofit also owns a growing fleet of hydrofoil restoration projects that include President Richard Nixon's "Volga", which was a gift from Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev in the summer of 1972.
"We're going to bring all of our collection here," James said.
James said tours of the Aries will also be available July 4.