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OpSail festivities get under way in stormy fashion

By Jennifer McDermott

Publication: The Day

Published 07/07/2012 12:00 AM
Updated 07/08/2012 12:47 AM

East Lyme - With engines roaring and its fans spraying a plume of water, a hovercraft sped toward the USS Carter Hall in Niantic Bay.

It spun around and shot back toward the Hole-in-the-Wall Beach at more than 30 knots as a state police patrol boat kept curious boaters and kayakers at a safe distance.

The vessel rode 7 feet off the water on an inflated cushion.

Inside the pilothouse, three sailors manned the controls. Windshield wipers swept constantly across the windows in front of them.

The Carter Hall, a naval dock landing ship, sent the amphibious Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) to "storm" the beach as part of the opening ceremonies for OpSail 2012CT Friday in Niantic.

Visitors who were along for the ride wore earplugs to damper the noise from the gas turbines, which are essentially jet engines. There were a few bumps along the way, but the trip was relatively smooth as the craft traveled quickly, on air.

The cushion began to deflate as the hovercraft approached the shore.

Like a baseball player sliding to the plate, the craft turned sideways at 17 knots and slid across the beach. It rocked slightly back toward the water, lowered onto the sand and stopped.

The crew exchanged high-fives.

"That was ridiculous," exclaimed Joe Huson, an operations specialist and the navigator.

Brian Hamilton, the chief operations specialist and the craftmaster, said deflating the cushion while the craft is moving is tricky and must be timed precisely so it doesn't slide back into the water.

The LCAC 71 that operates from the Carter Hall (LSD 50), in Little Creek, Va., normally lands on wide-open beaches, not short, steep ones, and travels in much less busy waters. After carefully evaluating the backdrop of local boaters in the bay to see the ships arriving for OpSail, the officer in charge decided the craft could reach the beach safely. But it couldn't fit if the crew took the beach straight on, so they decided on a sideways approach.

"They did a fantastic job. It was a great show and a solid, safe landing," said Capt. Tim Spratto, commodore for the amphibious squadron that includes the Carter Hall.

The hovercraft moves "men and machines" on shore, Spratto said, for a variety of missions, from humanitarian to wartime. The Carter Hall is participating in its first OpSail.

John S. Johnson, chairman of the local OpSail, was one of the dignitaries on board for the brief trip. The hovercraft first landed on the beach to pick up the group of about 10, then traveled slightly more than a mile to the Carter Hall and back.

"It was a great ride. It was smooth even as we hit the beach," Johnson said. "Would I do it again? In a New York minute. I'd go out tonight."

Many of the spectators who watched the landing rushed to the beach to see the craft up close. Thirty at a time were allowed on the deck, which was awash with sand kicked up from the beach and water.

George Bell, a gas turbine system mechanic and the deck engineer, fielded many of the questions about the craft and its crew. He posed for pictures and smiled as people thanked him for his service. Bell said the reception in Niantic was "awesome."

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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