Amphibious transport dock New York departs Norfolk for good

The amphibious transport dock ship USS New York is at sea and anchor at Rudy's Inlet. New York is underway conducting training in the Atlantic Ocean on April 8, 2010.

NORFOLK, Va. — Pulling away from an oddly quiet naval station pier under a gentle sheet of rain, the amphibious transport dock New York made its departure from Norfolk on Wednesday – the first of three Navy vessels relocating to Jacksonville, Fla.

Its scheduled arrival Friday at Mayport Naval Station will be a merrier affair: Businesses there are thrilled to welcome the 402 sailors and Marines, and Jacksonville's ship-repair industry looks forward to more work.

"A lot of it is making sure that we do maintain two strategic homeports on the Atlantic coast," said Capt. Jon Kreitz, the New York's commanding officer. "This is just the first of three ships going down there to make sure that Mayport remains that second strategic homeport for the fleet."

The Navy announced early last year that it would move three Hampton Roads-based ships to Florida, partly to bolster Jacksonville's ship-repair industry. The amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima and dock landing ship Fort McHenry are to follow next year.

With plenty of advance notice, nearly all the families of the crew moved to Florida ahead of the ship, Kreitz said. Many relocated during the summer, so children could start the school year there.

That meant there was no one left at Norfolk Naval Station for a pierside send-off for the ship, which has been based here since its commissioning four years ago.

"For many of us who've spent large parts of our careers here, there's a big part of us that doesn't want to leave Hampton Roads," Kreitz said ahead of the ship's departure. "At the same time, we're very excited to move down to Mayport... so it's a bittersweet feeling."

Shawn Isbell, command master chief of the New York, said that moving from Norfolk will be a challenge, but at the same time, "it's kind of what we do in the military."

"There's an excitement," he said. "There's a buzz about the move."

The New York holds a special symbolism. Named in honor of those who perished in the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001, it has 7.5 tons of steel from the World Trade Center embedded in its bow. Its crest is emblazoned with the motto "Never Forget" and depicts a phoenix coming out of flames.

"This ship represents what rises from the ashes - the ashes of 9/11," Isbell said.

Isbell served in the Navy's ceremonial guard from 2010 to 2012. In paying tribute to the Navy SEALs and sailors killed in a 2011 helicopter crash in Afghanistan, he was moved to volunteer for a tour of duty there.

The New York will help bolster the Navy's fleet in Mayport, which shrunk considerably in recent decades. The Navy currently lists Mayport as home to 14 warships, in sharp contrast to Hampton Roads, which has about 55.

Jacksonville had homeported aircraft carriers for decades but lost its last one when the John F. Kennedy was decommissioned in 2007.

The Navy has long wanted to move a carrier from Norfolk to Mayport, but Virginia politicians have successfully argued that the costs of readying the Florida base to handle a nuclear-powered vessel were prohibitive.

Instead, Mayport is getting smaller ships that officials said reduce the potential impact of man-made or natural disasters in places where Navy ships are concentrated.

On Wednesday, the New York carried 320 sailors, 82 Marines and their equipment, and some unusual cargo: the personal vehicles of more than 201 crew members, including Isbell's motorcycle.

As the hour of departure arrived, the tugs pulled up; the rain eased and the seagulls swirled. Two sailors at the stern silently lowered the American flag in a final preparation for seafaring.

And with no other fanfare, the New York left Norfolk and steamed toward the Atlantic.

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