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Small crew's versatility is key to operating Mayport's littoral combat ships

In a November 23, 2016 file photo, USS Detroit arrives at Naval Station Mayport after completing its maiden voyage from Detroit.

MICHAEL LOPEZ/U.S. NAVY

By JOE DARASKEVICH | The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville | Published: February 26, 2017

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Every day starts with breakfast.

Chief Culinary Specialist Matthew Nordquest helps push out more than 50 of them to the sailors on the USS Detroit before he can move on to the next job.

Some days the next thing on his plate finds him guiding helicopters onto the flight deck. Sometimes, he’s out on the open water wearing a wetsuit for search-and-rescue training.

Trips back and forth to the galley are constant to make sure the rest of the crew is fed, but he usually can’t stay too long because there’s always something else to do.

Fortunately, they have a loose menu on the Detroit. It gives the crew a general idea of what they can expect to eat each night while training in the waters off Mayport Naval Station.

Tuesday is taco night, Wednesday is burgers, Friday is pizza and Sunday is usually prime rib, lobster or shrimp.

All the cooks do more than just prepare food. Sometimes when they’re busy, it means putting out cold cuts to satisfy the big appetites of hungry sailors.

“People have to eat. … If people don’t eat it’s going to be a bad day,” Nordquest said.

Like everyone else on the Navy’s littoral combat ships (LCS), cooks have to possess multiple skills to ensure the vessels function at optimal levels.

Nordquest is one of four cooks on the Detroit, but that’s just the start of his job description.

He’s been in the LCS program for six years, and in that time he’s been trained to do just about every job on the ship outside of the advanced weapons systems.

“We do the same stuff that all the other ships do, we just do it with less people,” Nordquest said. It takes about 55 people in the core crew with another 25 or so depending on the mission package to operate the 388-foot ship.

On most days, Nordquest starts cooking breakfast for the crew, but that’s about the only kind of regularity. After breakfast is served, the day really begins.

The flight deck is on the stern of the ship, which is a full level above the galley. When helicopters are scheduled to land, Nordquest directs them in safely.

Slide the meat in the oven, set the timer, head up the stairs and through the hangar, then up a ladder and into the control tower. Nordquest becomes the ship’s helicopter control officer.

He wears a headset and is in communication with about four people at once, controlling the deck status to determine when it’s safe for aircraft to land with a close eye on the wind and sea conditions.

“Most of the time we try not to land in rough seas, but it happens,” he said.

Down on the deck, a landing signalman waves the helicopter closer and closer to the ship while fire and safety crews prepare for worst-case scenarios. Some are the same people who work with Nordquest in the galley.

Nordquest said depending on the day, helicopters and drones might be coming and going hours at a time. Some days no flights are scheduled and the mission is completely different.

When they aren’t needed elsewhere, the cooks hone their craft in the galley.

“We have a menu. Sometimes we follow it, most of the times we don’t, especially with our schedule,” Nordquest said.

All dishes are made from scratch, and the small size of the crew on the Detroit makes it easy for the culinary specialists to mix and match ingredients or try new recipes.

“Because we are cooking for a small amount of people we can do more than a regular ship could that’s cooking for hundreds or thousands,” Nordquest said.

They try not to make anything straight from a cookbook. Instead of serving dessert made from a traditional brownie mix, they’ll often add chocolate chips or marshmallows to improve the dish, Nordquest said.

He said on taco night they don’t just use ground meat. They use high-quality ingredients to mix things up, so often they’ll have steak tacos or even ask for suggestions from the crew.

“I look forward to three meals every day, and I look forward to eating every meal,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Demetria Karlau.

She said all the cooks have their own specialties, whether it’s seasoning or certain pasta dishes, but the fact that the crew works closely with the cooks doing regular duties makes it easy to let them know what they want to eat.

“If you’re sick you can ask if you can get some chicken noodle soup,” she said of the accommodating nature of the culinary staff.

Karlau is an information systems technician, so her main obligation is to make sure lines of communication from the ship to the rest of the world are working. But of course that’s not all she does.

She said just walking through the hangar you might be asked to pull lines or help out in ways that you wouldn’t be asked on other surface ships. She said that team attitude is what makes the LCS crew more like a family.

“I like to think of this ship as a big bowl of ice cream: Everybody brings a different flavor,” she said.

Karlau has been on the Detroit for a little over a month, but she’s already gotten the chance to steer the vessel under the watchful eyes of a supervisor. She said she was up in the bridge enjoying the sunset with others when she was asked if she wanted to take the helm.

The power of the small ship impressed her, but she said the fact that she was given the opportunity to maneuver it through the ocean on her own is something she wouldn’t have gotten a chance to do on other types of ships.

The aluminum-hull littoral ships are designed to operate close to shore and can get to places larger ships can’t. They don’t have rudders and use steerable jet propulsion instead of propellers. Karlau said the power and speed is something you wouldn’t expect just looking at the relatively small ships.

Like Karlau, Nordquest likes that he gets the chance to do a variety of things on the Detroit.

He joined the Navy in 2003 to get money for culinary school and spent the first part of his career on submarines. “When I joined they told me the best cooks are on subs,” he said.

Based in Hawaii on the USS Chicago, he learned quickly that the Navy could teach him a lot more than how to cook. He grew up near Florida’s Sebastian Inlet where swimming in the ocean was a big part of life, so he jumped at the opportunity to qualify as a diver early in his Navy career.

“I got to learn how to dive off Waikiki on the Navy’s dime,” Nordquest said of the eye-opening experiences the Navy had to offer.

When he came to the Detroit they only had one search-and-rescue swimmer, so Nordquest volunteered and added another job to his resume.

“I’ve never rescued anybody, but the training is awesome,” he said.

Some days the crew launches an inflatable watercraft for search-and-rescue training between helicopter landings. Nordquest leaves the tower to head down to the galley to check on the food and the other cooks before quickly changing into diving gear and hitting the open ocean.

“Some days there might be nothing but cooking in the galley, other days it might be all kinds of different operations. It depends on the ship and what we have to do,” he said.

Fire Controlman 1st Class Brett Sanders was on the USS Abraham Lincoln before transferring to the Detroit. His job title is rolling airframe missile technician, but he said there aren’t any “normal” days on the littoral ships.

“My last ship before was a carrier, so I don’t want to say I was pigeonholed, but most of my focus was on my [specific] job,” Sanders said.

His major focus is still on combat systems now that he’s on the Detroit, but there’s an added emphasis on learning the responsibilities of other crew members.

“You have something new every day while you are still trying to focus on what you came here for,” Sanders said. “You’ve just got to be very flexible.”

He said the fact that he’s able to help with the engineering aspect of the ship is making him a well-rounded sailor, and he wants to continue to learn more about how the Detroit works.

The Detroit’s commanding officer likes having a versatile crew as well.

“This remarkable team is as much a family as it is a crew,” said Cmdr. Mike Desmond. “… It is a privilege to be their commanding officer and to see them in action.”

He called Nordquest a “superstar performer” and said the rest of the crew is just as skilled and determined.

But Nordquest is scheduled to transfer out of the littoral program soon to become an instructor at survival school, so those other sailors will have to pick up some of the duties he leaves behind.

They’ll also have to find someone to cut hair since Nordquest is the only one on the ship who’s gone to barber school — although most people clean up their look while the ship is in port.

©2017 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)
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