Naval Observatory

Every ten days or so a Navy ship cruises up the York River. It’s usually headed to the Naval Weapons Station at Yorktown. At least once a month I wind up taking a Navy service member or retiree sailing. This was a twofer, with the SS Cornhusker passing by while a seven-year Navy electrician was on board.

Naval ObservatoryDanielle Patino joined her aunt Mona LaBissioniere and their mother to take Mona’s son Andre on a sailing trip for his 13th birthday. They were visiting Williamsburg on vacation and Danielle came up from Norfolk, where she’s stationed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.

“I’m on shore duty while the Lincoln is under repairs in dry dock in the shipyard. I did two tours on the Lincoln. We went to Bahrain, Dubai, Turkey, Malaysia, Singapore, all over. They say an aircraft carrier under way in a carrier group is the safest place in the world, and I believe it.”

Naval ObservatoryIs it safe in a big storm? “We try to avoid storms. Sometimes you can’t, and the waves crash as high as the hanger bay.”

SS Cornhusker

Off in the distance at the top of the York Channel in the Chesapeake Bay, we spotted gangly ship that was too tall for an oil freighter but too peculiar for a Navy destroyer. Andre looked through the binoculars, and then Danielle took a look. “I can’t tell what it is,” she said. “I was never very good at that,” referring to ship profiles. (I still can’t tell a destroyer from a cruiser.)

As the ship drew closer to Yorktown, it became obvious by the slow speed and two tugs that it was under tow. Eventually it made its way to the Coleman Bridge, which opened routinely. But the slow gate of the tow meant the bridge remained open for 35 minutes instead of the usual 20. Vehicular traffic up top was backed up a mile in both directions, I surmised.

Naval Observatory

The Cornhusker is part of the Navy’s Ready Reserve. From the Maritime Readiness website: “The Ready Reserve Force is a fleet of 76 militarily useful ships maintained in reduced operating status by MARAD near potential load ports around the country. When activated, these civilian-crewed ships come under the operational control of the Navy’s Military Sealift Command.” The ship is capable of moving nearly 600 container cargos in and out of a war zone. No word on why it was so disabled as to require towing.

The Cornhusker continued past the Naval Weapons Station and upriver to the next port of Cheatham Annex. There its three cranes will be useful for training since Cheatham is a big logistical port. Presumably the repairs will take place there as well.

Food Inspection

As light breezes gently blew us back and forth across the river, we got to talking about careers. Mona is a health inspector and sanitarian in Meriden, Connecticut, which I found fascinating.

Naval Observatory“I’m a senior person, so I don’t go out to inspect restaurants anymore. If I did I’d fail a lot of them with 50 percent scores. I see the paperwork on Asian restaurants and I know there’s no way they can score 95 or 90. But you can’t afford politically to close them down. The biggest violations among all restaurants are handwashing and food temperature. I watch the staff wash their hands, and even though they know I’m watching they don’t do it properly. Asians don’t appreciate the nuances of food temperature. The rice actually has to cool down slightly to be served, for example.”

As a sanitarian, Mona occasionally has to inspect homes. “My boss believes we don’t need to go looking for trouble. Instead, we respond to neighbor complaints. Hoarders are the worst. They’re unpredictable. The stuff they keep isn’t just paper and string. Old food is buried in there somewhere, and it smells terrible. I have a light gag reflex, which makes it worse. We have a very small health department. When I have to go out on a hoarder inspection, I take my boss because I tell him that he’s going to have to sign off on it anyway so he ought to see for himself. Then I send him inside instead of me while I wait outside.

“Don’t be fooled into thinking these people don’t know any better. They definitely suffer some sort of mental issue, but some of them could have been teachers or lawyers in an earlier life. It’s very sad, but it still smells.”

Naval ObservatorySuddenly we were startled to see the Coleman Bride open again, without a Navy ship in sight. The Cornhusker was long gone, having stopped three miles upriver at the Cheatham Annex port. I radioed the bridge of the bridge to ask why. “Maintenance,” the bridge tender said cheerfully. “We’ll wrap it up shortly.” And slowly the bridge closed once more.

It was a unique birthday for Andre.

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Naval Observatory

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