Sub's first trip home is short but important

Buy Photo Dana Jensen/The Day The sub Missouri, the newest member of the Virginia class, is escorted up the Thames River by a tug to the Naval Submarine Base.

The submarine's black hull slid along the surface, past New London Ledge Light and into the mouth of the Thames River.

A tugboat was waiting there to help escort the newest member of the Virginia class, the Missouri, to the Naval Submarine Base for the first time on Thursday.

Until then, Electric Boat had been the home to this under-construction submarine. The Missouri was moving to the base in anticipation of Saturday's commissioning ceremony, when it will officially become a U.S. warship.

"This is our inaugural arrival," said Cmdr. Timothy Rexrode, the commanding officer. "So it is a big deal for us."

Two orange Coast Guard response boats with flashing blue lights patrolled the waters to keep other vessels away. A group of sea gulls hitched a ride behind the submarine's sail.

The tugboat's brow swung over to the Missouri (SSN 780), and Richard Willette, the chief ship pilot for the base, walked across to share his knowledge of the port with Rexrode.

It's a 6.5-mile, hour-long transit from just south of the lighthouse to the base, but it can be tricky. The river's excessive currents affect a submarine since most of it is underwater. Underneath the railroad bridge, less than 60 feet on each side separate the submarine with the bridge abutments.

Rexrode was at the top of the submarine's sail, a space known as the bridge that offers the best view of Missouri's surroundings. A lookout with binoculars was there to check for ships, especially small fishing vessels that may not appear on radar.

Above them, the American flag snapped in the wind.

The Missouri was returning from an inspection with a Navy team aboard to make sure the submarine was ready for the rigors of the sea - one of the critical last steps before commissioning known as the Navy Board of Inspection and Survey trials.

Willette radioed the Amtrak dispatcher to ask that the bridge be opened. Most of the crew members were at their stations checking for signs of other ships while others stood by in case of an emergency, such as a fire or flood.

As Missouri arrived at the pier, Capt. Michael Bernacchi, commodore of Submarine Squadron Four, congratulated the crew over the shipwide public address system.

"It has truly been incredible what this crew has been able to perform," said Bernacchi, who was aboard the submarine. "I also want to be the first to welcome you to sub base. Welcome to Squadron Four and most importantly, welcome to the Submarine Force. Carry on."

Sea trials completed

The crew moved aboard and began the day-to-day operations of the ship on April 16, in preparation for the sea trials and the eventual commissioning. Since then, it has been an up-tempo, hectic time involving the 130-man crew and a 100-person Electric Boat team responsible for testing all of the ship's systems.

"It never stops from the start of dock trials to the delivery," said Stanley Gwudz, director of ships management at Electric Boat. "It's a sprint."

In late June, they started up the reactor. Missouri's first voyage into the open seas happened soon after, with the submarine submerging for the first time and completing high-speed runs to demonstrate the capabilities of the propulsion plant. The crew returned to EB on July 4, having successfully completed Alpha Sea Trials.

Twenty-four hours later, Missouri headed back out for Bravo Sea Trials, a nine-day event that included testing the combat systems. After each trial, EB employees fixed any problems that arose. Gwudz said there were only "minor deficiencies."

"Missouri performed better than any previous Virginia-class ship. It was outstanding," Gwudz said, crediting the success partly to the company using lessons learned from building other members of the Virginia class.

"The crew works as a well-oiled machined," Bernacchi said. "… This is the first time that they actually arrived here at sub base. It's kind of a special time because before this they were always in the shipyard, always considered new construction. The crew will tell you more than anything that they want to be part of the fleet. Today marks the first day where they start to become part of our fleet."

Next up: commissioning

Many of the crew members returned from the Navy inspection Thursday with bags under their eyes, but Rexrode wore a big smile. He said commanding the Missouri "is hard to describe."

"I could say awesome or fantastic or any of those kinds of words, but it really is an honor," Rexrode said. "It's the biggest honor I've had in my professional career. I'm proud to bear the name Missouri and get out to the fleet to do the work of the Navy and the nation."

All that is left to do now is dress the submarine with a platform for the dignitaries and patriotic bunting, and set up the chairs on the pier, Rexrode said. EB also has to make the final adjustments following the report from the Navy inspection team, then send the certification paperwork for approval to Navy officials in Washington, D.C.

"It's not a walk at the park," Gwudz said. "But we see daylight."

EB will deliver the Missouri, the seventh member of the Virginia class, to the Navy nine months ahead of schedule, in 600,000 fewer man hours than any previous Virginia-class submarine. The total construction time was 65 months. The goal is to get that down to 60 months.

Becky Gates, wife of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, serves as ship's sponsor. The defense secretary has accompanied his wife to past ceremonies for the Missouri. A host of high-ranking Navy officials are also expected to attend the commissioning.

But it is the end of the ceremony that the crew members are looking forward to the most.

"We've kind of been a little bit of a laughingstock, with that sense of just being in the shipyard everyone looks at our crew like we're inexperienced," said Electronics Technician Third Class Brett Jennings, 21. "We turn around, and we show them, 'Hey we're a submarine now, we're ready to do business.' "

Machinist's Mate Fireman Justin Vasquez, 21, said he was eager to start "doing real stuff, doing the stuff that will help out."

"We get to be submariners," added Torpedoman Second Class Ronald Jeffcoat, 24. "Before we were, but we were not doing the mission of the submarine."

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