ON the shores of the graceful Kennebec River a legend is celebrating its centennial - not quietly, but to the accompaniment of welding torches, steel cutters, and hammers. Bath Iron Works, 100 years old this year, is still doing what it does best - building ships.
The sailing has not always been smooth for the ironworks, nor for shipbuilders in general. Once there were 50 shipbuilding firms on the Kennebec River. Now there are two.
Even with Bath Iron Works's sturdy reputation and 100-year legacy, company officials note the firm is facing unknown waters. They acknowledge that BIW, a subsidiary of the privately held Congoleum Corporation, must meet the challenges of competing in an open market for a dwindling number of ships.
The company has always been willing to ''build anything that floats,'' says Earle Warren, BIW purchasing manager and the ironworks' unofficial historian. Over the years that philosophy has accounted for racing sloops, freighters, fishing trawlers, and yachts. But BIW's overall prosperity has been tied to the United States Navy.
BIW spokesman Jim Mcgregor says the company is now at a ''key transition period.'' It is finishing work on a number of Navy ships. And, he says, demand for commercial ships is ''virtually nil.''
''Our future is the DDG-51 (guided-missile destroyer),'' says James M. Blenkhorn, BIW's senior vice-president for business and technical development. Mr. Blenkhorn is referring to a new type of ship the US Navy is proposing to order, an Aegis-class destroyer.
It would be a ''very important ship (for the ironworks),'' Mr. McGregor says, because the Navy is expected to order 60 of them. Winning the contract to design and build the first ship would mean contracts for a number of ships. ''That would guarantee a fairly steady stream of work, almost to the end of the century ,'' he says.
Four or five BIW competitors are also expected to bid on the destroyer. ''The other companies are looking at it as their future as well,'' Blenkhorn says. ''But we'll go after it with a vengeance. It is the only major program in our marketplace which is being considered for the next 10 years.'' (The shipyard's location, 12 miles up the twisting Kennebec River, precludes it from building the largest ships, such as aircraft carriers.)
The Bath Iron Works, compressed into 54 acres, swarms with activity. Two enormous assembly buildings - one brick, the other metal - are filled with the din of welding and hammering steel plates into some of the world's most sophisticated floating artillery. Workers at the shipyard are renowned for the pride they take in shipbuilding.
During the last year, however, worker ''morale has been at an all-time low,'' says David Ward, president of Local 6 of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America (AFL-CIO). ''It's true that workers take pride in their work,'' he adds, ''but we say that we do quality work, with high productivity, in spite of management.'' Among other things, the union local has been pressing for health and safety improvements for the 4,800 BIW laborers it represents.
EVEN so, ''there is room for optimism.'' Last year William E. Haggett, a Bath native with 20 years' experience at the shipyard, was appointed BIW's chief executive officer, Mr. Ward notes. Since then, the company has become more responsive to workers' needs, he says. ''There's still room for improvement. But if we can maintain our pride and a strong work ethic under adverse conditions, we hope things will get even better.''
Inside the assembly buildings, sparks fly every which way. Ships here are built in sections, each weighing up to 220 tons. (Sixteen sections make up a Navy frigate; as many as 100 are needed for a freighter.) In each section, plumbing is installed, lights are hooked up, and lockers are bolted in. When each section is as complete as possible, it is moved outside by crane and hoisted onto one of the shipyard's four concrete building ways to be mated with the ship's other sections. Outside, on the ways, builders swarm over the partly finished ships like bees around a flower.
The block building method, called ''pre-outfitting'' by company officials, reduces the time needed to build the ships. Pre-outfitting also cuts the time a ship must sit on the ways, says Roy Reed, BIW's director of marketing. Much of the construction is done indoors, the modules go together quickly, and ''we can pop off (ships) like sausages,'' he says. Indoor building also keeps the ironworks humming when the Maine winter sets in.
BIW is the largest private employer in the state, with 7,200 workers currently on the payroll. Of the 5,000 laborers, about 10 percent are women, McGregor says. At the height of the FFG-7 activity in 1982, BIW had 8,500 employees - its highest post-war level. (More than 15,000 employees were cranking out ships during World War II. But, attesting to the cyclic nature of shipbuilding, the yard employed only 2,700 workers in 1972.)
Says one former employee: The ironworks ''pays the best money around, but unless you've got some seniority - 10 years or so - you've got a good chance of getting laid off.''
McGregor says the company does not expect to operate at current levels if the destroyer contracts are not secured. ''Some employees would have to be laid off, '' he says.
Congress is expected to vote this session on appropriations for the DDG-51 destroyer. If funding passes, the Navy would probably advertise for bids during the summer, McGregor says. ''We would have to submit a bid in October, and the award could be made by early next year.''
The contract is vital, McGregor says, because much of the shipyard's other business is drying up. On May 12, the guided-missile frigate Elrod was launched from one of BIW's ways. McGregor says the Elrod was ship No. 21 of a contract to build 24 such FFG-7 class frigates. The last of these ships will be delivered to the Navy in 1986, he says.
Although BIW has built 22 large commercial vessels in the past 15 years, that market has now disappeared. American shipbuilders no longer receive government subsidies, and they can't compete with foreign shipyards - which all receive support from their governments, says BIW's Blenkhorn. Japan and South Korea have captured much of the commercial-shipbuilding market, he says.
BIW has secured Navy contracts to build two Aegis-class cruisers. But a competitor, Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss., designed and built the lead ship of the class, and has contracts on 11 more. Blenkhorn says contracts are pending on more cruisers, but Ingalls has captured the lion's share and will be hard to catch.
Blenkhorn says BIW ''would not be devastated if it were not designated (the destroyer's) lead builder. We will actively bid on the remaining Aegis-class cruisers,'' he says. And BIW's new ship-repair facility in Portland, Maine, has secured commitments to overhaul three ships. He says the facility could account for as much as 10 percent of BIW's revenue.
Historian Warren says BIW has made many kinds of boats over the years, including the first steel-hull boat built in Maine, the USS Machias (1890); early battleships such as the Georgia (1906); rams (boats with steel plating 20 inches thick for ramming holes in other ships); and destroyers for World War I.
During World War II BIW churned out more destroyers than the entire Empire of Japan - 82 to 63. BIW launched a new destroyer every 171/2 days, Mr. Warren notes.
The company built fishing trawlers during the lean years after the wars, and also a number of yachts in the 1920s and '30s. This included the largest private yacht ever built, J. P. Morgan's Corsair, a 343-foot behemoth which was subsequently used by the British admiralty in World War II.
BIW also built the racing sloop Ranger for Harold S. Vanderbilt, which swept the America's Cup races in 1937.
The company was founded in 1884 and became a public corporation in 1917. By 1925 the ironworks seemed destined to become one more Kennebec casualty - the factory was sold at auction and shut down. But an enterprising Mainer, William S. Newell, brought the company back in 1927 with a commission to build a yacht.
In 1967, the corporate structure was changed when Bath Industries was created as a holding company for the ironworks. The next year, Bath Industries acquired a home-furnishing manufacturer, Congoleum Narin. Then, in 1975, the parent company changed its name from Bath Industries to Congoleum Corporation. In 1980, the company bought back its stock and became a private firm for the first time since 1917.
An exhibit at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath opens Saturday in commemoration of the centennial. The exhibit, open throughout the summer, includes photographs dating back to the turn of the century, pictures, and drawings of BIW workers and Bath boats.
In addition, the shipyard will hold an open house July 1, and the frigate FFG-56, the Simpson, will be launched Aug. 31, the designated day of celebration in Bath.