Sailing Aircraft CarriersSailing the York River inspires old memories for Navy personnel. Mike Brennan served aboard not one but three aircraft carriers, so his recollections were mighty big. He described the experience while taking his wife Sharon and two daughters sailing on a quiet afternoon. Just briefly we saw a few dolphins in Sara Creek before the disappeared.

“I served on the Constellation and the Kitty Hawk,” Mike said. I asked about the height of the Kitty Hawk and he recalled immediately, “Seventeen decks, nine above the water line and eight below the water. It had around 5,000 men. You never get to know them all, much less meet them. You become familiar with those who share your work and your space.

Sailing Aircraft Carriers

“The first time I saw a carrier was when I got to the port of San Diego. I got out of the cab and looked up, and it was Wow! The closer I got, the bigger it looked. Then I got to see planes take off from the flight deck.

“The Connie and Kitty Hawk were identical ships. At some point they switched the names because a yard fire delayed one of them from completion. Years later you’d roll out the spec sheets on board the Kitty Hawk and they would read Constellation, and vice versa. I think they were activated around 1961. Both have long been decommissioned.” I asked if that made him feel melancholy, or old. “Yes, but they were born before I was.”

I suggested that they visit the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, where a big model of an aircraft carrier has gun mounts under the flight deck. Mike said, “Back then, when they realized how badly they needed carriers, they reconfigured destroyers by putting a flight deck on top. The deck was made of wood planks.”

I mentioned the USS Forrestal fire of 1967, the worst Navy fire at sea. A pilot inadvertently dropped his bombs on the flight deck while landing, setting off a terrific conflagration that killed 134 men and injured 167. The pilot was future POW and presidential candidate John McCain. Mike said that would be unlikely to happen today because such extensive precautions are in place to guide the pilots onto the flight deck. “It’s called the Meatball, a set of lights that display the location of the jet as it approaches. I’ll send you a link.” Here it is.

Manning the Rail

Sailing Aircraft CarriersAs the girls sat on the bow looking over the water toward Yorktown, I told Mike and Sharon about how the guided missile cruiser Yorktown would pass Yorktown with all hands on deck in their whites, saluting the town. Mike said, “That’s called manning the rail. I only did it twice. The first time was while passing the USS Arizona memorial in Hawaii. We stood on the deck saluting while passing between the Arizona and the Hawaiian island. It took forever because we were being escorted by tugboats and moved very slowly. The other time was when the Kitty Hawk was headed up the Delaware River to the Philadelphia Navy Yard for decommissioning.”

Mike also served on the USS Enterprise, the early nuclear carrier. “We ran aground in San Francisco Bay, which was really something. But it wasn’t the Navy’s fault. The tug boats got off course and were responsible. They moved all the men to one side of the boat to see if that would correct the heeling.” We looked at each other as if to say Nahhhhh.

“Another time, we went through the Suez Canal, which was really tight. We were very vulnerable to attack since the escort ships weren’t beside us. The planes had been flown off for security. It was so narrow that you could stand on the deck and only see sand because the narrow hull filled the canal. For security, the Navy used helicopters to hoist Army tanks up onto the deck. They were lined up all the way around for protection. Who thought of that, I wonder. We were out there driving golf balls off the deck onto the passing sand.”

Greenpeace Protest

“In San Diego we ran into the Greenpeace movement. They tacked their sailboats back and forth in front of the bow, which is really dangerous since an aircraft carrier can’t maneuver in close quarters. It takes two miles just to turn around. The Navy brought in helicopters to fly low and blow the boats over. It was pretty neat to see.

“At sea, if someone fell off from the flight deck, they might be rescued by other ships in the fleet formation. If it happened at night, there wasn’t much of a chance. Sometimes we had to do a burial at sea.” That astonished Sharron and me, since the image of projecting a body from the flight deck was riveting. “No, they’d go below and find a lower deck or portal to get closer to the sea.”

The only burial at sea we had on this day was the rail. The wind picked up to 10 mph and we heeled 15 degrees to everyone’s delight.

Sailing Aircraft CarriersEventually Mike took the wheel after Sharon spent most of the afternoon learning the close reach and then the beam reach – and how they differed. I explained the steering dynamic as having the “wheels” in the back of the boat instead of the front, like a fork lift or a shopping cart. A couple of hours in, she was doing really well and I asked her if she had run a boat before. “No, but I’ve run a lot of shopping carts.”

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