It has been a record-breaking year for some U.S. Navy ships, although some sailors and families may have preferred to not be at the forefront of such feats.
Various vessels have eclipsed one another in breaking Navy records for continuous days at sea this year, as the threat of COVID-19 has scuttled port calls and some deployments have stretched beyond the strictures of the Navy’s Optimized Fleet Response Plan, or O-FRP, schedule.
O-FRP is supposed to provide for seven-month deployments, partly in the name of giving sailors and families more stable and predictable schedules, but several ships have deployed on nine-month cruises this year.
Navy spokeswoman Lt. Emily Wilkin said in an email Wednesday that the pandemic has forced ships to quarantine before deployments and stay at sea between integrated training and deployment, so that the ship can maintain its “COVID-free bubble.”
At the same time, more than 190 ships have suffered COVID outbreaks of some level, although “aggressive early action” has contained many of those outbreaks, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said in a message to the fleet last month.
On Monday, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer Stout returned to Norfolk after a nine-month deployment that began in mid-January and featured a “record-breaking 215 days at sea” bookended by stops in Rota, Spain, to get fuel “and fulfill other logistical requirements,” a Navy release on the homecoming states.
Despite lofty promises of stability, the Navy's fleet deployment plan is a shambles.
That deployment was marked by stints where Stout was short on essentials for both the ship and its crew.
“We’ve gone for significant lengths of time without new parts, stretched our food and fuel limits, and they continued to give 110 percent every day,” the ship’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Rich Eytel, said of his sailors in the release. “They faced our challenges head on, which allowed us to continue to meet all operational tasking.”
Because the pandemic has made frequent port visits a thing of the past for now, Stout undertook the “first modern Mid-Deployment Voyage Repair” period at sea during the deployment.
“Throughout deployment, Stout’s technicians executed depot level repairs on vital engineering and combat systems equipment,” the Navy release states. “During that period, the ship conducted morale events, like swim calls and steel beach picnics.”
The crew was also given “rest and reset” periods at sea, allowing shipmates “to relax and reenergize,” according to the Navy.
Before Stout took the title for most continuous days at sea, that distinction was held by the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower and the cruiser San Jacinto, ships that broke the prior record for most consecutive days at sea this summer.
“There’s a lot of pent-up frustration with Big Navy,” one TR spouse said of the looming double pump. “Like, what are you doing?”
After a few months back home, Ike is now readying for a “double-pump” deployment, which means it will deploy twice in the same 36-month readiness cycle.
While it didn’t break the record for continuous days at sea when it returned to San Diego on Tuesday, the destroyer Paul Hamilton hoisted the “homeward bound” pennant, a distinction reserved for crews who have endured more than 270 days of deployment.
Paul Hamilton left San Diego in mid-January with the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt’s strike group, and split off for other operations around the globe after a quarter of the carrier’s crew became infected with the novel coronavirus, prompting a months-long emergency port call in Guam this spring.
TR community members told Navy Times last month that sailors have been told to expect the carrier to double-pump in the coming months after the ship returned to San Diego in July.
Officials have declined to provide any deployment timeline but noted TR is in a phase of O-FRP where it must be ready to deploy on “short notice,” and that “deployment resiliency” resources and other assistance are being provided to the carrier’s crew and families.
Last week, another destroyer, Pinckney, returned to Southern California after its own nine-month cruise, six of which were spent with no port calls to mitigate the coronavirus threat.