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Tiger Cruise aboard the USS Nimitz (CVN-68)
5 Apr 2010



As I mentioned in the previous post, I recently had the opportunity to go to sea with the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) nuclear aircraft carrier.  It was a rare opportunity and even though I was already familiar with the Navy and the Nimitz, I had never before experienced life at sea.  It was a fascinating experience and one particular revelation really hit home:  Aircraft carriers suck.  Well, not the ship itself, it's living on board that gets old fast.

Aircraft carriers are amazing machines and an important part of our national defense.  They're awesome to watch and great to visit but being stationed on one and stuck at sea for eight or nine months isn't quite as glamorous as it seems in movies like Top Gun.  I probably would have been fine with being stationed on a carrier in my younger years but as I grow older I have less tolerance for the tedium and inconveniences.  I also prefer to spend time with my family.  Maybe I'm spoiled that way.

Airboss The Tiger Cruise I went on was the ship's final cruise after an eight month deployment.  When my father was stationed on the USS Nimitz, back in 1976, the final trip home was from Rota, Spain to Norfolk, Virginia.  That trip took 11 days.  They could have crossed the Atlantic faster but they had to zigzag to avoid Russian submarines and Bear bombers.

Now that the Nimitz is stationed in the Pacific it usually stops by Hawaii on its way home to San Diego.  That trip takes about five days and would have been quite convenient for me.  This time though, the Nimitz went through Bremerton, Washington (near Seattle) so the trip home was only three days.  At first, I was a bit jealous that I only got three days aboard the ship rather than five or eleven days.  By the third day though, I was happy to have the shorter trip.

The Nimitz is comfortable enough.  Having a friend that is a senior officer definitely helps.  I didn't have to sleep on a cot like many visitors.  I ate with the officers rather than in the enlisted mess and I was shown respect as if I were an officer myself.  Still, the Nimitz is a war ship, not a cruise ship.

Visiting the ship in my youth was very different than staying aboard the ship now that I'm older.  The things that struck me the most about "living" on the ship were the persistent noise, the lack of privacy and the constant feeling of being cramped and crowded.  The presence of female crewmembers and guests was another obvious difference.  Surprisingly though, the thing that bothered me most, and affected my sleep even more than the noise, was the lack of a window.  There's a TV channel that constantly shows the flight deck or I could go up a couple decks to look outside but that's just not the same as regularly seeing the light of day.  I suppose it's possible to adjust to all these things, most sailors do, but I think I'll stick with farm life.

Room The first night on the ship I realized just how noisy it can be.  The galley (kitchen) was located right above my state room.  Since the ship is all steel, the constant sound of feet was very obvious.  I thought the noise might die down a couple hours after dinner but nope, it went on all night long.  I think a crowded airport would have been quieter.  Every time I started to fall asleep they'd slam a door or drop a heavy can of beans right above my head.  That was nothing though compared to the noise coming from the hangar bay where they were constantly moving heavy equipment, dragging noisy chains and dropping the loudest stuff they could find.

My state room was located somewhat near the center of the ship, much better than being located aft.  During flight ops I went back to one of the decks right below where the planes land.  Now that was a loud noise.  It sounded like an explosion every time a plane landed.  More than just a noise, your whole body and the entire ship would shake.  The worse part is that there was no warning, just a sudden loud bang.  I don't know how anybody could learn to sleep through that but they do.

The first morning on the ship I woke up to the sound of reveille: "Reveille, reveille.  All hands fall out.  Reveille."  I don't know why that woke me up when none of the other noises did but I'm glad it did because breakfast only lasts an hour so if you sleep through reveille then you miss breakfast.  Reveille is normally at 6am.  Or so I thought.  On the last day they tricked me and sounded reveille at 5am.  It didn't occur to me to double check my watch so I was all showered, dressed and ready for breakfast before realizing that I had another hour.  At least the coffee was already brewing.

CSO My buddy Joe is the Combat Systems Officer (CSO) which means he's in charge of the ship's phones, TV, Internet and a bunch of other electronic stuff.  Being a department head, it looked to me like he didn't actually *do* anything.  I'm not criticising, I'm just saying he didn't really look like work to me.  He was plenty busy but it looked less like work and more like just talking to people on his little walky talky thing.  I think I need to bring him to the coffee farm and show him how a real man works.  (Don't tell him I said that, he could kick my butt easy.)

Even though it didn't look like work to me, my friend was constantly dealing with emails and phone calls.  The first call of the day, as the ship was pushing away from the dock, was from someone trying to download a large file.  The download kept timing out because the file was too big.  If they had downloaded the file the night before while the ship was still connected to the dock then the download would have been easy but they waiting until the ship was disconnected from the dock so the download had to go through the ship's wireless connection instead.

The file in question was a program used to track whales so the Navy could decide if it was safe to drop bombs during the air show.  I liked the idea that I might get to see some live ordinance demonstrations.  There was another guest that overheard the conversation and she was more concerned about the whales.  I tried to explain to her that it's a very large ocean so chances of bothering any whales was quite slim.  I don't know if the software program was ever downloaded but I do know that I never got to see any explosions.  Stupid whales.

Hoist Once the ship got under way they had a lot of events scheduled for the visitors.  I took a couple tours.  I saw rooms with wall size monitors that displayed all sorts of fancy data and hi-tech stuff that I wasn't allowed to photograph.  I also took a tour of the AIMD areas.  AIMD (Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance Department) is where my father worked when he was on the ship.

I've seen plenty of jet engines in my life so that wasn't very interesting but it was interesting to see all the things I remember from childhood.  One little thing, which seems trivial yet still struck me as fascinating, was the chain hoist in the maintenance department.  While installing the chain hoist in my barn I had thought about the chain hoist I had seen on the Nimitz when I was a kid.  I use my chain hoist to lift my tractor's engine while the Nimitz's hoist is used for moving around jet engines.  I know it's boring to everyone else but I thought it was cool.  It's probably still the same hoist after all these years.  So I took a picture.

Bell One of the other things I looked for on the ship was the ship's bell.  My sister was the first baby baptised on board the Nimitz.  According to Navy tradition, my sister's name should have been engraved inside the ship's bell.  My father had heard that the original bell was stolen but he didn't know if it had ever been recovered or if the names had been engraved on the new bell.  I decided to try to find the bell and see for myself if there were any names on it.

My first discovery is that there is more than one "ship's bell."  There is a bell up on the bridge but it's a little bell that is permanently attached to the wall.  There are other little bells here and there, all too small for any kind of baptism ceremony.  Supposedly the chapel has a ceremonial bell but it wasn't in the chapel when we went looking for it.  We were informed that the bell was up in the fo'c'sle, the area at the very front of the ship where the anchors are.  The first time we went there, they were having some kind of ceremony and we didn't want to intrude.  We came back later but then there was no bell in sight.  Asking the sailors for help was pointless: "No Sir, no bell here."  I started to wonder if it was some kind of elaborate practical joke.

The hunt for the "ship's bell" took me all over the ship.  My favorite discovery was the starboard catwalk, way up near the bow of the ship.  Apparently, in foggy weather, ships sound a gong at the rear of the ship and a bell at the front of the ship.  That tells other ships to stear clear of the ship as well as the anchor chain leading up to the bow.  We managed to find that bell but it was permanently attached to the hull and there weren't any names scribed in it.  I checked.

Crowd Vulchers
F18 Launch
I managed to find several other ship's bells but none of them were *the* bell.  That doesn't mean it's not there though.  It's a big ship with a lot of places to hide a bell.  I never found my sister's name but I did have a good time exploring the ship while looking for it.  It was like my own private little treasure hunt.

The main event while I was on the ship was the airshow.  I've been to many airshows but never one while at sea.  It was fun even if it did get rained out a bit early.  It would have been even cooler if it wasn't so crowded.  That was a constant theme on the ship, any time something interesting was happening there were a zillion people trying to watch.

Overall it was a fun trip.  As uncomfortable as the ship could be, it was still a great experience.  As the ship pulled into San Diego there was a huge crowd of families waiting down on the dock.  I could feel the excitement aboard ship.  Eight months away from friends and family is a long time.  Everyone on the ship was quite happy to finally be home.

I doubt I'll have an opportunity like this again but that's ok because once was enough.  It's a fascinating experience that I recommend to anybody who gets the chance.  The Navy has been going to sea for centuries and they really have the whole thing figured out pretty good.  Even though I wouldn't want to spend eight months at sea, I definitely have respect for all the sailors that get the job done.


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