By Deborah McDermott
Portsmouth Herald, Thursday, September 2, 2010
[The following article is courtesy of Portsmouth Herald and Seacoast Online.]
KITTERY, Maine -- The future of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard has arrived.
On a clear, hot Wednesday afternoon, dozens of Navy officers, shipyard workers, Portsmouth officials and families carrying handmade signs welcomed the crew of USS Virginia to the yard.
The sub is the first of the Virginia class ever built and the first to come to any shipyard in the country for an overhaul. As such, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard made sure it was a special occasion.
"We’re excited we get to set the bar," said yard commander Capt. Bryant Fuller. "We’ve been planning for this for several years now. It’s kind of like Christmas. We’re tired of waiting. We want to get on with it."
The group had gathered on the banks of the Piscataqua River deep inside the yard, waiting for Virginia to round the bend and come into view as it made its way to the yard drydock for what Fuller called a 14-month "tune-up."
For Paul O’Connor, president of the largest union at the yard, the Metal Trades Council, the arrival of Virginia marks a new chapter at the shipyard.
"We’re ready for the challenge. Thousands of men and women have been working together to get it right for this day," said O’Connor, who remembers when the first Los Angeles class sub came to the yard in the 1980s.
"It’s exciting for us to be part of the transitional history of the shipyard," he said.
Virginia and Los Angeles subs are very different, he said, and workers must know both fluently in order to be able to work on them each in the years to come.
"We still have years ahead of us with the 688 (Los Angeles) class, so we need to remain proficient with the existing technology and the new technology," O’Connor said. "We’ve had successive challenges, and we’ve always been up to the challenge."
As O’Connor spoke, the excitement of the group increased with news that the sub was coming into view. When Virginia passed, crewmen stood on the bridge and topside, waving to the crowd while a loud horn aboard the sub blasted.
Among those holding up a handmade sign was Kate Salter, wife of Virginia’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Tim Salter. Pregnant with a due date in just a few weeks, she was joined by son Jonathan, 3, who held a sign reading, "Welcome home, daddy." Daughter Grace, 6, was attending Kittery’s Mitchell School at the time.
Kate said her family will live at the yard during Virginia’s time in drydock, and added the Kittery community has been very welcoming.
"I’m going to enjoy getting to know the area," she said.
Also on shore was Heather Gacek, whose husband, Lt. JG Andrew Gasek, is aboard Virginia. The couple, too, will live in Kittery while Virginia’s here. She said the area has the same feel as Boulder, Colo., where she just lived, saying "it has so much of what we like," such as its proximity to mountains for biking and skiing.
She also said she appreciates that Kittery is "a bike-friendly town."
The city of Portsmouth is the host community for Virginia. City Councilor Bob Lister, chairman of the host committee, was joined Wednesday by Mayor Tom Ferrini and Councilors Nancy Novelline Clayburgh and Ken Smith. Lister said 26 people have answered his call to be members of the nine-person committee, and "believe me, I’ll find work for all of them."
"We’re really honored to have been chosen to welcome the crew not only to Portsmouth but to the whole Seacoast, really," Lister said. Seeing the USS Virginia, he said, "is a good reminder of why everyone wanted to save the shipyard."