Friday, November 21, 2008

The Bonds Between Sailors and Ships

One of the first things that jumped out to me while digging through the USS Freedom (LCS 1) on my first day was the very interesting bond between sailor and ship. Unlike many ships in the US Navy, most of this crew has spent at least the last year, if not longer, working towards proving this ship will work before it was even launched. Now that the year (often many years of work) has delivered a well built ship, and it is their ship, this blue crew of USS Freedom (LCS 1) takes every comment made against the ship personally. The word to describe that bond is ownership.

I mentioned yesterday the Navy has cheated with the "Hybrid Sailor" concept, and I don't know if that is the right word but it is one way of looking at it. Unlike other ships, the LCS crew is extremely experienced, the least experienced sailor I could find on the ship had been in the Navy for 6 years. Most of the sailors in the blue crew had helped write the CONOP for the ship, and continues to develop these concepts as they gain experience on the ship.

I took pretty good notes, and according to my notes there were 55 sailors on USS Freedom (LCS 1) during the transit of the last three days from Buffalo to Montreal. Broken down, and this is important, there were 41 blue crew (usually 40) and 11 Gold crew members were brought on board for this specific difficult leg of the trip. The other three were public affairs.

The breakdown was the original 40 blue crew, plus one LT who is the prospective operations officer. Blue crew has been working on a ship that has been delayed in delivery, which has naturally made everyone anxious up until now. Blue crew has been working hard to get the ship ready not only for Norfolk, but on to Panama City for mission module testing, then further on to San Diego to the home port. At this time, that means 9 officers (usually 8), 17 chiefs (usually 15), and 14 sailors. Essentially, the extra time has allowed several sailors to advance.

A few things stood out for example of what I am calling "cheating". The current operations officer is a LCDR soon to go to the NWC. When a civilian would come on board as part of the requirements for navigating the Welland Canal locks, I attempted to get their impression of the crew before they would get off the ship. I was literally the guy in the civilian clothes that was introduced as media, and I think it is noteworthy 3 different civilian Captains, all of whom are old hands on the Great Lakes, walked over without my encouraging and pointed out compliments for specific people, but always the LCDR at the helm. But here is the dirty little secret, I was able to watch that ship make complicated, often some of the most challenging ship handling maneuvers throughout my short tour along the locks, and the best ship driver on that ship in my opinion is actually the assistant propulsion officer, a LT, which if you take my observations as truth will give you a sense of just how much talent this specific crew has. I really can't stress the experienced sailor aspect enough, the most jr sailor on Freedom has been in the Navy for 6 years, if you see someone young on Freedom, they are probably with public affairs.

I have been sent this video by a number of our Canadian friends asking what happened. Well, first the comments on that video are inaccurate, no engine or electric problems at all during the leg from Buffalo to Montreal. Since these types of videos represent legitimate interest, and desire for current information, I want to tell the real story of how the USS Freedom (LCS 1) was damaged as seen in the picture to the right in her journey through the Welland canal. At the time I was the only person on the bridge standing around doing nothing while watching the action, and I was accidentally in perfect position to see it all. See that window on the top left side of the picture? I was right behind there during the accident.

Throughout the trip the tug Ohio was to help the USS Freedom (LCS 1) get through the Welland canal system. Ohio was built in 1903, but had engine work done in the late 1950s. There is some irony the Navy was using a tug that was 105 years old to push the ~105 day old littoral combat ship through the locks, but it was a necessity because USS Freedom (LCS 1) does not have a bow thruster. The reasons for no bow thruster appears to be weight. I think it is an interesting omission, I think a bow thruster would be useful for making port in those places where tugs may not be available for example, but I'm not convinced it is a mistake to not have a bow thruster. Time will tell and this will be something that needs to be determined, but I do not see the Welland canal as a compelling reason for a bow thruster.

The locks along the Welland Canal are only 80 ft wide, while the Freedom is 58 ft from bridge wing to bridge wing. The crew was able to get through lock 7 at 2:00pm OK without a problem, but the big challenge was going to be the three lock combination at lock 6, 5, and 4. Lock 7 was about 45 ft, but lock 6 goes directly into lock 5, which goes directly into lock 4, and the drop of each lock was at least a 45 ft each. Basically the LCS was scaling down the side of a hill through the locks. I had previously heard the Welland Canal is tough on ships, which is one reason I wanted on this leg of the trip, but this particular three lock system seemed to me like the toughest challenge facing the crew. It was.

Everything seemed to be working OK as the Freedom followed the tug into Lock 6. Ohio set up with its bow running into the port wall with the aft of the tug sticking out towards the bow of the Freedom. The crew had run a line to the tug forward, a tight line, and also set up 4 groups to man the 4 lines that would hold the ship to one side of the lock. 2 lines forward, 2 lines aft. The forward lines were manned by 4 sailors each, with 4 other sailors working fenders, and one safety officer. 13 total up front (my count may not be exactly right). In the back there were also two lines, usually 6 sailors per line, with 5 sailors doing fenders, while one officer and the corpsman would act as safety officers for the activity on the flight deck. I can't emphasize enough how impressive a job these folks did, and I took a ton of pictures of them working the lines and will post more in coming days. I'm not a reporter, but I wrote down 9 quotes like a reporter would from the various civilians who came on as pilots and otherwise noting the work of these sailors, and every comment was very positive.

About 4:20pm on Tuesday night, with both the tug and USS Freedom (LCS 1) centerline in lock 6, the lock door opened. As would happen the ship would get pushed back a few meters before getting pulled forward a few meters. The tug Ohio, attempting to maneuver was pushing itself off the wall and jerked the ship to starboard, opposite line side. As it turned out, the lock workers had already pulled the lines for USS Freedom (LCS 1), so she started drifting hard to starboard. In an attempt to compensate, Ohio pulled hard to port, too hard, and with a tight line saved Freedom from a hard hit to starboard, but the pull began pulling Freedom to port. Ohio suddenly found itself in a tough position, lining up directly parallel against the port wall, she was unable to find leverage to push off the wall. Ohio, attempting to find leverage, seemed to increase speed a bit to build some momentum forward. Next thing you know, Freedom, which was doing about 1.5 knots and was centered, was all of sudden accelerating quickly being pulled by Ohio which could not escape from the port wall.

Slowly I could see Freedom accelerating to 4 knots moving down the lock. Freedom was running only about 1 knot of its own power, and was steering to keep itself centered. The port bridge wing began to veer into the now open lock gate, which had some sort of grading system sticking out from the lock door. The Captain, who was calling 'hard starboard' from the bridge wing, quickly recognized the situation, literally pushed me off the bridge wing with a look (I was standing near the door looking out seeing the wall close in while being the curious civilian bystanding idiot), grabbed a fender and tossed it in front of the port bridge wing. Next thing I hear is "BOOM!" The fender caught one of the protruding grates from the door and was smashed open at least 4 knots. The ship jerked quickly pushing to starboard, but the tug was still caught parallel to the port wall of the lock moving at a deliberate pace, and couldn't push itself off the wall.

With the tug still trying to get free and moving at about 4 knots, the ship jerked again as the rope to the tug tightened and pulled Freedom towards the grate on the wall again. I turned to see the Captain, and his face had the look of helplessness as he jumped into the bridge from the bridge wing. Still calling orders to stop the ship, the bridge wing smashed again into the grate. Somehow Captain covered the bridge width in about 10 seconds, grabbed a fender from the starboard bridge wing, and was able to get back to the port bridge wing just in time to prevent a third massive hit, placing the new fender in position to prevent another massive collision between the bridge wing and the last protruding grate of the lock door. That fender exploded too, this time all I saw looking out of the bridge wing door was smoke and the Captain fighting to keep the bridge wing from taking another hit.

The tug, still stuck along the port wall, had reversed engines and stopped the ship just after this moment in what felt like a small jerk from my position of the far left window viewing forward on the starboard side. Captain kept the ship in that position for a minute while organizing new fenders to the bridge, removing some of the debris from the damage, and getting the line loose from the ship and tug. There was about 5 furious minutes of activity as the ship sat still only a few feet off the starboard bridge wing. The tug line was let loose, and the tug was able to work itself free into the middle of the lock before the line was used to reposition the ship in center of the lock. Over the next several minutes the ship advanced into lock 5 at 1 knot before the tug positioned itself for the next lock.

At that moment three very interesting things happened quickly, and it sort of happened simultaneously but took about 5 minutes to complete all three tasks.

The first task was managing future locks. The Captain, XO, the LCDR at helm control, and a brilliant civilian consultant named Daniel Hobbs formulated lessons learned in about 3 minutes and developed a new strategy template for managing the locks. In that moment several things came about that changed the lock procedure. For example, the order which lines would be released from the lock was formulated, in every lock after that one the tug line would be dropped first and the tug would center itself before the lines of Freedom would be released. This was made very clear to the lock operators. Another example, the line between the Freedom and the tug would no longer be so tight, except when the ships would essentially tie themselves to each other as the water dropped. Finally, and this became the new procedure, the Captain and XO would each station a bridge wing, while Hobbs would float to where he needed to be to keep the tug constantly positioned for Freedom, and using the camera system that watched the aft sides of the ship, the LCDR at helm would process the information and instructions from all three and keep the ship off the sides of the locks. This process, while refined a bit each time from that point on, was the core process that allowed Freedom to navigate the rest of the locks from the bridge without any other direct hull hits.

While that process was taking place, I was also watching the CHENG and a few jr officers quickly manage the starboard bridge wing damage. May seem like no big deal, but fenders are heavy as hell, and the ship had lost a few in the accident. After only 2 locks, fenders would have to move from side to side of the ship by two chiefs and lowered to the appropriate level just in case. Sailors would often have to sprint from one side to the other hauling a fender, lower the fender, then pull it up not 2 minutes later to get to the other side and lower it again, and oh by the way, in 20 degrees and sometimes in the face of a few no fun Canadian wind gusts that makes warm seem miles away.

But the most important thing that happened in those 5 minutes wasn't manual labor. There is a major sense of ownership with this crew and this ship, and being around the ship one quickly gets the feeling the bond is very tight. This isn't just about the blue/gold manning scheme, which I will talk about extensively later, but this is something personal. The hit to the ship was personal, and there was a morale blow that swept across the ship. The Captain got on the radio and talked to the whole crew, and in about 1 minute had talked everyone beyond that moment. I can't recall much of what he said, and asking around later most folks couldn't either, but despite the damage, the knowledge that the most watched ship on the Great Lakes was going to be pictured with a bit of damage on the bridge wing could have been a real problem with the vast majority of the locks still ahead of us, particularly as it turned dark. Didn't happen though, a lot of bruised pride, but for what amounts to a bit of superficial damage in an accident the crew couldn't of done anything to prevent.

I had an outstanding adventure, and Montreal has been a lot of fun too. I want to shout out a big thanks to the CHINFO for inviting me to see the Navy's latest ship. I want to also thank Chris Cavas for being my personal free of charge technical consultant on the trip (ha!).

Most of all though, I want to thank the USS Freedom (LCS 1) crew for putting up with a 'blogger' for the last few days. I had an outstanding time, and look forward to sharing the experiences I had on your very interesting ship. I have every intention to share the lessons and observations of my trip with the masses in the near future. There is a lot of interest in this ship, so many questions that many think they know the answer to without ever seeing for themselves. Change is not always recieved well in the Navy, and people who are used to doing things a certain way won't easily understand why the LCS is different, but I think there is something happening on Freedom that is good for the Navy. While I can't promise to change minds, I will insure your perspective is accurately presented. Thank you very much for that opportunity.

So much to say, only so much one can type in one setting. In the meantime, SECNAV joins the Freedom for the next leg, and the Freedom will continue her trip to Norfolk with a new, very interesting and important mission. The USS Freedom (LCS 1) will now give the rest of the fleet a peek into what the 21st century looks like.

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