Friday, June 19, 2015

An Amazing Ride on a Really Big Boat – A Nimitz Class US Aircraft Carrier

I was standing at the Pearl Harbor Visitor center in Hawaii waiting for my home for the next 6 days to come in to port, and as the US carrier rounded the bend there were many thoughts and feelings going through my mind. The first was certainly how impressive the ship looked and my admiration and respect for the sailors ‘manning the rails’ as they lined up along the edge of the ship in their whites, second was probably the fact that the ship could use a paint job but then again after 10 months at sea with 7 of those months in the Persian Gulf being blasted by sand you should expect a little rust – lastly I kept wondering why the sailors like to refer to it as ‘the boat’ – I would think at 1092 feet the phrase ‘ship’ would certainly be more appropriate. Maybe that was more a term used by them in a sarcastic way after so many months of life aboard? Well I was about to spend 6 nights aboard as part of the ‘Tiger Cruise’ the Navy sometimes does for family and friends of the crew while we made our way from Pearl Harbor to San Diego so would get a brief picture of life aboard.

That evening I was taken to my living quarters for for the next 6 nights. I would say stateroom, which it is officially known as, but that makes it sound too plush. This was very utilitarian as is the entire boat with wires running along the walls and pipes everywhere. But it is a Navy warship so I suppose that is how it should be. My son is an officer so I was lucky enough to be in officers’ quarters but it was still 6 grown men in a space that was 10 feet by 10 feet including the space occupied by the bunks stacked 3 high so it is very tight. The quarters are air conditioned so the temperature was very pleasant but there was intermittent but frequent noise in the form of metallic clunks and squeaks but I popped an Ibuprofen to help me sleep and literally crawled into my ‘coffin’ as they are affectionately called and tried to get the claustrophobic thoughts out of my mind. It was long enough and wide enough to not make me feel too closed in but the bunk above me was so close I couldn’t stretch my arm out so it was tight. I wasn’t about to let on that I was a bit claustrophobic though because this was a trip of a lifetime and I wasn’t going to miss out on it. Even if I had to sleep in a chair sitting up if I became claustrophobic, I would make it work.
Thankfully none of my roommates snored so I was able to sleep until early in the morning when I was awoken as the door closed when one of my roommates left. I slid out of my bunk and got dressed and waited for my son to get back so we could go get some breakfast. The food was not bad and was all you could eat so the morning was off to a good start. The wardroom where the officers eat was fairly nice and had a couple of TVs going with the Armed Services network playing a variety of shows so I was pleasantly surprised. After breakfast my son took me on a quick tour and then we went up on the deck to watch as we departed from Pearl Harbor. It was an amazing site with the sailors dressed in white ‘manning the rails’ and as we passed the USS Arizona Memorial all activity on our ship stopped and it was completely silent as all the sailors stood at attention and saluted in honor of the ship and her lost crew.
After we cleared the harbor our ship began to proceed under her own power and the tugs pulled away. We were still being flanked by a Navy patrol boat on each bow while we were in the channel but when we left the channel and went out into the open ocean we increased our speed and in the rough seas you could tell the patrol boats were having trouble keeping up with us so both of them fell off and went back towards the channel. It was a beautiful day and exciting to be up on the flight deck surrounded by all of the aircraft as we watched the islands of Hawaii began to fade over the horizon.
The remainder of the day was spent acclimating myself to the ship and learning how to find my way back to my stateroom which could be quite difficult to do at times. The bulkheads are all numbered in order from bow to stern and have an indication of whether they are on port or starboard – but it was still very tricky with all of the halls and side passageways. I quickly fell into the routine which seemed to be universal on the ship of looking forward to meals and watching a movie at night before crawling head first into my bunk to sleep.
The next morning I woke up with a lurch when I heard a loud grinding noise followed by a very loud bang. “What was that?” I asked out loud as I looked around the room from my bunk. Surprisingly there were only 2 guys left – the others must have gotten up and out early. “That is the JBD – you ain’t heard nothing yet. Wait until the CAT starts,” I heard from my son in the bunk above me. “JBD?” I asked. “Jet blast deflectors. The CAT comes next. We usually have to end up putting in earplugs in for them. It’s loud as hell and the whole room shakes when they’re in action. They’re getting everything tested out before they start the launches.” I was in a room with Pilots and NFO’s (Naval Flight Officers) that are aircrew on E2’s so their quarters are close to their ready room (where they brief before flights) and therefore close to the flight deck, actually right underneath it – so it is a very loud room during flight operations.
The Navy had scheduled a flight show for us so I went up on the flight deck to watch the aircraft launch before the show actually started. There were 1200 other ‘Tigers’ on the ship with me so it was crowded but I still got a great view of the amazing process as the sailors very skillfully positioned the aircraft on the deck, attached the catapult and then shot them off the ship. It was an amazing experience as the afterburners of the jet flamed and the rumble of the engines and clanging of the catapult reverberated through your whole body as the blasted off the end of the carrier. I watched one after another get lined up and blasted off in their perfect choreography of movements as the crew worked together with precision. It was an unforgettable scene to watch.
Over the next few days there were tours set up for us for many of the different systems on board including the flight control tower which was very cool, weapon systems, the fo’c’sle (slang for forecastle) which had equipment that basically looked like a big version of the anchoring equipment on my sailboat, the flight deck with the catapults and arresting cables and many other tours. In between tours I spent a lot of time just walking around on my own or on the deck looking at the empty sea occasionally catching a glimpse of one of the destroyers or cruisers that are part of our Carrier Strike Group.
Eventually I began to do the same as my roommates when they were not working - lying in my bed with my computer on my chest watching movies or TV shows. There was no Wi-Fi to surf the net and only space for 3 chairs in our room so there were not too many options while you were in the room. I spent 6 nights on the ship and these guys were on it for over 270 days. The Navy kept them busy working 6 days a week and they had a port call every 6 weeks or so but still, 270 days. That’s a long time away from our typical American homes and lifestyles, not to mention family and friends. Or alcohol, for those of us that enjoy an occasional beer or glass of wine – none of that on the ship. No phones either to call your loved ones and hear their voices, which of course also means no texting. The only communication you get is an occasional email and if you are lucky a Skype call when you are in port. The only privacy you get is in your bunk which, after just a couple of days quickly became my sanctuary.
The last day comes and everyone is busily preparing to pull into port in San Diego and leave the ship. It has been an amazing trip but I look forward to getting back to my creature comforts. And of course some really good food (although the sailors on the ship did a great job and had some very good food) and a nice cold beer or two. But my excitement doesn’t compare to the 4000+ sailors that have been deployed on the ship for over 9 months. They are talking excitedly in the hallways, laughing more and discussing what they will do when they get back home. As we pull into the channel leading to San Diego I am up on the deck with the 1000 or so other Tigers and 1000 or more sailors in their white uniforms. The enlisted are manning the rails with the officers behind them and patriotic music is playing over the speakers. There is a fire boat in front of us spraying a fountain of water out both sides and many civilian boats alongside with their flags flying and the people on board waving and screaming out their ‘welcome home’ greetings. People are also lined up on shore waving as we pass by and a formation of Navy helicopters fly by us circling the ship. When we pull up close to our dock we see ten thousand or more people waving, applauding and screaming out to the sailors they are waiting to greet home with many of them holding signs with their sailors name on it or a greeting from the new baby that was born while the father was out at sea. I wasn’t a member of the crew and it is very emotional for me so I can’t imagine how emotional it must be for the crew that has been deployed for so long. When the first dock line is launched to shore a big cheer comes up from the crowd, when the first gang plank is attached another cheer from the crowd, then the loudest cheer of all comes up when the crew begins to leave the ship and walk ashore. There are over 40 men that are new fathers whose babies are waiting on shore to see them for the first time so they let them off the ship first, then the others begin to follow.
My son and I leave the ship and weave our way through the crowd headed to the closest restaurant and bar. He is in his white uniform so some of the people we pass in the crowd are welcoming him home and thanking him for his service. We walk about a mile to the Coronado Brewing Company and see many sailors have already beat us there. While we are waiting in the bar for our table a family insists on paying for our beer and their teenage sons look closely at my son and listen carefully to the conversation he is having with their mother about the places he has been and the things he has done. I am so proud of him and so honored to have been a part of this amazing experience.