Launching John Warner (SSN 785)

by Tyler Quarterman, Rigger Apprentice

A light rain was falling as I stepped onto the wing wall of the Floating Dry Dock (FDD) before dawn on September 10. Out of the darkness loomed John Warner (SSN 785), the latest fast-attack submarine being built at Newport News Shipbuilding. The sub lay half-submerged in the water, cradled in what seemed like a giant bathtub. Her black, shark-like hull glistened in the water, seemingly anxious to be under way.

I first saw the ship at her christening ceremony five days earlier, but this almost seemed like a different vessel. All of the ceremonial decorative banners and streamers had been removed and thick, black smoke now bellowed from her sail. Although she would not be sailing under her own power that day, she had certainly sprung to life.

All around her, trades people, Navy personnel, and contractors scrambled to prepare for the launch of this beautiful war machine. I expected it to be a mad house, but instead it was a flowing symphony of activity, directed by a single man – Dock Master and apprentice graduate John Anderson. As long as any part of the vessel is on his dock, the dock master maintains full responsibility for this billion-dollar vessel. Yet, Mr. Anderson walked the decks with cheerfulness and the utmost composure.

When asked how one goes about organizing an operation of this magnitude, his simple response was, “You get a game plan together, you put people in the right positions and you makes sure that those people have good direction.” This was clear from the level of communication between each group and the overriding level of organization.

It was Dock Master Anderson who invited six rigger apprentices to work alongside experienced members of the dry dock crew to help tend one of the eight mooring lines that tied up the ship. “As an Apprentice,” said Anderson, “I was exposed to all aspects of my trade and I gained an understanding of other trades that I can apply to my job now. I became well rounded in my department and I believe that all apprentices should do the same.”  

The clouds began to clear as the FDD sank further into the river, almost imperceptibly. As we approached “float off,” both port and starboard sides kept tension in the mooring lines to keep the submarine evenly centered. It happened so smoothly that I didn’t notice the moment the submarine floated off the keel blocks. Once the FDD reached its maximum submergence depth, some of the lines were cast off and tugboats were in position on one side of the sub. As the tugboats pulled the vessel 600 feet along the FDD, several mooring lines helped slow and control the ship’s movements. As the ship moved, we moved the lines along with it, “jumping” the line from cleat to cleat.

As the ship cleared the edges of the dry dock, the final lines were cast off and we watched as this beautiful vessel floated downriver, guided by the tugs. Watching this peaceful journey, I was reminded of the poem Senator John Warner had read at the christening five days earlier. It began, “I must go down to the sea again.” Here before me was John Warner (SSN 785) doing just that, reveling in the first taste of the salty sea that she will one day command.

Photo: The Floating Dry Dock slowly lowers John Warner (SSN 785) into the water for the first time, Sept. 9, 2014. Photo by Ricky Thompson

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