2 Navy war­ships break record for stay­ing at sea

Eisen­hower, San Jac­into dodge virus for over 160 days

Orlando Sentinel - - Nation & World - By Lolita C. Bal­dor

WASH­ING­TON — The two U.S. war­ships in the Mid­dle East weren’t aim­ing to break a record.

But when the coro­n­avirus made ship stops in for­eign coun­tries too risky, the USS Dwight D. Eisen­hower and the USS San Jac­into were or­dered to keep mov­ing and avoid all port vis­its.

On Thurs­day, as they steamed through the North Ara­bian Sea, they notched their 161st con­sec­u­tive day at sea, break­ing the pre­vi­ous Navy record of 160 days. And they’re on pace to crush it, since they won’t hit land again un­til they get home to Vir­ginia later this year.

The mile­stone, Navy Capt. Kyle Hig­gins said, “is not one that I think we re­ally wanted but one that the cir­cum­stances of the world thrust upon us. And we em­braced it with style.”

When the ships left home in Jan­uary, COVID-19 was just start­ing to emerge. By the time they crossed the At­lantic and moved into the Mediter­ranean Sea, the virus was es­ca­lat­ing.

In March, Vice Adm. Jim Mal­loy, the Navy’s 5th Fleet com­man­der, or­dered a stop to all port vis­its to re­duce the chance of spread­ing the virus through the fleet. Other ships were bat­tling out­breaks, in­clud­ing the USS Theodore Roo­sevelt, which got side­lined in Guam.

With that, Hig­gins, the Eisen­hower com­man­der, and Capt. Ed­ward Cross­man, the San Jac­into com­man­der, knew their sailors wouldn’t set foot on land for some time. Both were in­ter­viewed a few days be­fore the ships broke the record.

For more than five months, the Eisen­hower, an air­craft car­rier, and the San Jac­into, the guided-mis­sile cruiser that ac­com­pa­nies it, have been at sea, with no on­board visitors and strict con­trols over how air­craft de­liver their sup­plies.

The iso­la­tion has been chal­leng­ing. Port calls not only give sailors time for rest and re­lax­ation, they also al­low ex­perts to come aboard to do dif­fi­cult re­pairs.

When the San Jac­into’s he­li­copter bay door broke, the crew mem­bers had to get cre­ative. It was the mid­dle of the night, and they re­al­ized they needed to re­place a large sprocket.

“My guys did the re­search, and they said, ‘Hey, th­ese 90-pound dumb­bells are made from the same ma­te­rial that we need for this gear,’ ” Cross­man said in an in­ter­view from the ship. So, they took the dumb­bell down to the ma­chine shop and cre­ated the part.

On the Eisen­hower, crew mem­bers had to safely re­place a large, crit­i­cal fan mo­tor for the flight deck. It took four teams from the elec­tri­cal, en­gi­neer, sup­ply and ma­chin­ist de­part­ments, but af­ter con­sult­ing with ex­perts on shore, they broke down the fan, got it onto a makeshift plat­form and in­stalled the new part.

“Nor­mally, this job would have called for cut­ting into the ship to get it down there,” Hig­gins said. “I’m happy to re­port that the fan and mo­tor are op­er­at­ing fine and we are 100% op­er­a­tional again be­cause of it.”

Crew entertainm­ent has also got­ten cre­ative. Dis­ap­pointed sailors watched as they passed coun­tries along the Mediter­ranean and headed through the Red Sea with­out stop­ping.

“This is my first ship as well as my first de­ploy­ment,” said Petty Of­fi­cer 2nd Class Dione­sha Sim­mons. “It’s a bit of a strug­gle just be­cause I was look­ing for­ward to some of the port calls.”

In­stead, she said, she’s hav­ing fun mak­ing brunch for the Eisen­hower crew on “Waffle Satur­days.” She and oth­ers take over to give the cooks a break.

Hig­gins and Cross­man said they’re try­ing to give sailors ded­i­cated time off — some­times a full 24 hours to do what­ever they want, other times a cou­ple days off in a row.

They plan more swim days and “steel beach pic­nics” when sailors can wear civil­ian clothes and bar­be­cue on the flight deck. The Eisen­hower crew had cigar so­cials with jazz mu­sic.

One pop­u­lar event, said Petty Of­fi­cer 1st Class Travis Bush, was a slam dunk bas­ket­ball con­test that he said re­lieved stress and showed off some tal­ent.

On the San Jac­into, sailors sub­sti­tuted a mus­tache con­test for the March Mad­ness tour­na­ment. The 64per­son bracket com­peted to see who could grow the ugli­est mus­tache.

The 160-day record was set in Fe­bru­ary 2002 by the USS Theodore Roo­sevelt, early in the Afghanista­n War. The pre­vi­ous 152-day record was set by the Eisen­hower in 1980 dur­ing the Ira­nian hostage cri­sis.

Navy his­to­ri­ans say it’s dif­fi­cult to check long into the past be­cause records are spotty.

Now one crit­i­cal ques­tion re­mains: Which ship will pull into Nor­folk last, snag­ging the record?

“I’ve had a cou­ple re­quests to see if we could stay out longer to make sure we beat the Ike,” Cross­man said with a laugh.

Hig­gins says they’ve joked about it. His re­sponse? “Time will tell.”

BRENNEN EASTER/U.S. NAVY

Sailors have a “steel beach pic­nic” early this month on the flight deck of the air­craft car­rier USS Dwight D. Eisen­hower, which has been at sea since Jan­uary.

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