The guided-missile cruiser Vella Gulf has suffered yet another “engineering casualty” preventing it from deploying — and it’s unclear how long it will take to fix.
“During pre-underway checks, crewmembers discovered debris in a main reduction gear lube oil strainer,” U.S. 2nd Fleet spokeswoman Lt. Marycate Walsh said in a statement. “Technical representatives are onboard the ship to diagnose the issue and determine a way forward. We do not have an estimated time to repair at this time, however leadership continues to work with technical experts, who have been onboard 24/7, to evaluate and assess the best course of action for both ship material readiness and crew well-being.”
USNI News was the first to report the Vella Gulf experienced more mechanical issues.
Meanwhile, the warship remains pierside in Norfolk in a deployed status while its crew remains onboard.
“Throughout this delay in deployment, leadership has been keenly aware of all repair efforts, as well as the health and welfare of the crew,” Walsh said. “The ship remains in a deployed status and is maintaining a COVID-free bubble while repairs are ongoing.”
The Vella Gulf wrapped up its previous deployment in August 2020, and initially deployed as part of the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower’s strike group in February 2021.
But a fuel oil leak caused the Vella Gulf to return to Norfolk less than a week later. Officials at the time said it was uncertain how long the repairs would take and the crew remained onboard the ship to preserve a COVID-free environment.
Since then, the Vella Gulf has been plagued with more fuel tank problems. After getting underway again in March, the ship suffered another fuel leak in the same tank that previously posed problems, and was forced to head back to port. As a result, the crew has been confined to the ship for weeks in Norfolk.
Despite complaints from sailors to Navy Times, Walsh said that Navy leaders have aimed to provide sailors freedom to kick back and listed several ways they’ve done so already.
“Ship and Fleet leaders have been working hard to provide the crew opportunities for rest and relaxation,” Walsh said. “Some actions already taken include expansion of liberties (civilian clothes after hours) during off-duty time, fitness on the pier, several morale, welfare, and recreation (MWR) sponsored food and fitness events, and care-package drop-off days for families.”
The Navy announced in February that completely vaccinated crews would not be subjected to restriction of movement (ROM), sequesters and may “relax health protection measures aimed at mitigating the spread of the novel coronavirus,” according to a NAVADMIN message. Sailors who are fully vaccinated are also permitted to participate in port calls in overseas U.S. ports such as Yokosuka, Japan and Rota, Spain, among other locations to utilize base services.
But the Vella Gulf crew is not fully vaccinated, and therefore, the Navy says it does not qualify for an ease in some of these restrictions.
“While a large portion of the crew has received the vaccination ... it is required for crews to have 100 percent immunization in order to take advantage of reduced restrictions and the elimination of ROM-sequester,” a Navy official told Navy Times. “The crew executed a restriction of movement to minimize the impacts of COVID-19 prior to their recent underway period, and the ship is currently in a COVID-free bubble.”
All tech assists aboard the ship conducting repairs are subjected to a series of mitigation measures, including temperature checks, COVID screening, and BinaxNow testing before entering the ship, according to the Navy official. Likewise, they are also required to wear N95 masks at all times.
“On board technical experts that are assisting with repairs are tested extensively before entering the ‘bubble’ and are diligent about keeping a safe distance from the crew,” the Navy official said.
The military has racked up nearly 179,700 cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic started, including nearly 36,900 cases among sailors, according to Pentagon figures updated April 12.