Syria mission excites father, sons: Destroy chemical arms
The job board listing looked a lot like any other when Lance Spain saw it in mid-December. A Portsmouth-based ship called the Cape Ray, part of the Maritime Administration's Ready Reserve Fleet, was activating for a mission and needed a crew.
Spain, who is 21, started as a merchant mariner a year after graduating from Green Run High School in Virginia Beach. He says it's hard work, but it pays well and allows him months of time off between sails. It's also a family profession. His older brother, Emanuel Spain Jr., and his dad, Emanuel Spain Sr., are in the same line of work.
It soon became clear that the Cape Ray job would be anything but typical: The ship would be going to the Mediterranean Sea to pick up and destroy chemical weapons from Syria.
It sounded dangerous, but Lance decided to go. A few days later, without knowing Lance had just done the same, his dad signed up, too. Soon Emanuel Jr. decided he'd go as well.
In an interview aboard the Cape Ray a few days before departing, the Spains said they never thought they'd crew a ship together, especially for a mission like this.
"It'll be part of history," Emanuel Jr. said.
"It's never been done before," his brother added.
Work began in early December to outfit the Cape Ray with hydrolysis systems that will neutralize the chemical arms. While the technology has existed for years, it has never been used at sea and was adapted last year specifically for the Syrian crisis.
About two months ago, officials announced it would be installed on the Cape Ray, a decades-old, 650-foot former cargo ship that the United States bought from Saudi Arabia in 1993. Monday's departure was delayed about seven hours because of an electrical issue with one of the vessel's two main engines.
Many details about the mission remain up in the air, but the rough plan is this: From Syria, the chemical arms are being loaded onto Danish and Norwegian cargo ships. They'll be transferred to the Cape Ray at an Italian port, and the material will be neutralized at sea, a process that could take months.
The crew includes about 35 mariners, many of them from Hampton Roads. They'll eventually be joined by 60 Army civilians, mostly chemical engineers, who will do the work of rendering the chemicals safe.
In addition to the neutralization units, the Cape Ray has been equipped with systems to contain leaks to protect its crew if something goes wrong.
The Spains said they understand this job comes with extra risk, but none of them is especially worried.
"I feel like they're taking care of us," Lance said.
Like many merchant mariners, Emanuel Sr., 48, acquired his taste for the trade in the Navy. He grew up in Norfolk and spent six years in the service as a cook. After years aboard civilian ships, he left in 1997 to work in hotels. He recently decided to return to the water and is now a steward's assistant.
He's glad his sons have followed in his footsteps. "I wanted them to have a career, not just a job," he said.
Emanuel Jr., who is 24 and a chief cook, has sailed to Pakistan, India and China. Lance, who works in ship engine rooms, has been to Mexico, Panama, Japan and the Philippines.
The Spains expect that in many ways, this trip will be like any other: defined by work, 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
There will be lots of differences, too - something that became clear when they were told to be cleanshaven to be fitted for personalized gas masks, and when they were trained to get them on in 9 seconds or less. When the chemicals are being neutralized, everyone aboard will be required to carry the masks in green bags wherever they go.
The crew also has received extra training for emergencies, including putting out fires, abandoning the ship and landing helicopters on deck - something Lance and Emanuel Jr. said they'd never seen before.
All of the uncertainty is also new. It's estimated that the Cape Ray will need to spend about three months on station, but the crew signed six-month contracts because there are so many unknowns. While some chemicals have been taken out of Syria, the removal process already has missed deadlines. If Syria's government is slow to hand over the remaining weapons, the Cape Ray may have to wait for some time.
Also uncertain is whether the crew will get any breaks in foreign ports; it could be the longest many of them have gone without setting foot on land. To compensate, they are getting extra pay, and the Cape Ray has been equipped with television, phones and Internet for the mariners' personal use - none of which is typical, the Spains said.
The attention has made this job feel different, too, they said. As the ship was being prepared, military generals and admirals paid visits, as well as reporters from around the globe.
Visitors also will be part of the mission. Besides the Army chemical engineers and extra security personnel, the Cape Ray will host international monitors, said its captain, Rick Jordan of Keystone Shipping Co. The effort to destroy the weapons is being overseen by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
"This is certainly different from anything I've ever done," Jordan said.
Although the Cape Ray's mariners will have no direct involvement in neutralizing the arms, they've been taught basics about what it entails, the Spains said. Likewise, the chemical engineers spent time aboard before the ship's departure, getting a crash course on life at sea.
All three Spains said they were aware of developments in Syria's 2-1/2 -year-old civil war, including the use of chemical weapons, before taking the job aboard the Cape Ray. But they've been paying closer attention in the past few weeks.
"I think we're doing something good," Emanuel Sr. said. "It could save a lot of people's lives."
Like their dad, Lance and Emanuel Jr. said they're glad to be part of something important.
At least one person, though, would have preferred they take a more mundane assignment, they said: their mom.