After 147 days at sea, USS Saipan moors at Rota
Stars and Stripes June 11, 2003
NAVAL STATION ROTA, Spain — Reaching land was a boost for the souls and weary sea legs aboard the USS Saipan after 147 days at sea without a port visit.
Most of the 2,600 sailors and Marines haven’t wasted a minute of shore time in Rota, taking advantage of a much-needed break from a long deployment in support of the war in Iraq.
Some crewmembers said that the long hours at sea wore many of them down. As the days dragged on, tempers flared and patience grew thin, leading to arguments and a few scuffles between people on board.
“It was pretty hectic,” Seaman Alan Conklin said. “You kind of got tired of being around the same people all of the time. Tensions really got high.”
The Norfolk, Va.-based Saipan arrived in Rota on Friday. The ship is just one of several that have left the Persian Gulf and are on their way home. More ships are scheduled to arrive in Rota this week.
Getting a break in Rota is sweet relief for sailors, especially Petty Officer 1st Class David Richardson. He has stopped in southern Spain four or five times in his 16-year Navy career.
Each time, he never got past the base gates. While other sailors got time off to relax, Richardson always had things to do, from scrubbing the decks to painting the ship Navy gray.
But this visit is different.
After nearly five months at sea, Capt. N.L. Hackney gave each of the 1,100 sailors aboard the Saipan three days off, while the Marine commander was to decide how much liberty the Marines would receive.
“This time I can actually see something other than the base,” Richardson said.
The 778-foot Saipan, which has a well deck that can fit 125 vehicles and a flight deck with space to carry up to 30 aircraft, delivered cargo to troops in Iraq and provided maintenance for combat aircraft with the New River, N.C.-based Marine Air Group 29.
The unit’s helicopters, which include AH-1 Cobras and CH-46E Sea Knights, provided air support for a Marine task force that seized the Iraqi town of Tikrit in the last major battle of the war.
With the Persian Gulf and the war behind them, the Saipan’s 2,600 sailors and Marines are savoring their first port visit.
The Saipan’s arrival has meant long lines at the base automatic teller machine, extended hours at base stores and plenty of business for local taxi drivers.
Crewmembers in spot interviews said the tour was successful, but a test of one’s patience.
Marine Lance Cpl. Michael Samuels said living without any privacy surrounded by 200 to 300 people around the clock would get on anybody’s nerves.
“Even I get aggravating after a little while,” he said.
Petty Officer 1st Class Jason Eisenhardt said the only way to get through the long days at sea was to focus on work and not look at the calendar.
“It’s taken its toll on everybody,” said Eisenhardt, who is married and has a daughter who will turn 2 on Father’s Day.
When the ship arrived in Rota, Hackney, the ship’s commander, went on the ship’s closed-circuit television system and encouraged sailors and Marines to do more than just visit the local pub in town. She prodded them to go out and visit some of the villages around Rota and to experience the culture of southern Spain.
The Morale, Welfare and Recreation department offered 17 trips around Spain and Portugal for sightseeing, shopping and hiking. More than 1,400 people signed up to go.
“We were trying to get something for everyone,” said Ryan Candillo, a civilian who serves as the recreation director aboard the ship.
One of the priorities of the chief petty officers on board is to make sure the crew has fun while also staying out of trouble and not getting hurt.
They want sailors and Marines to let loose, but not to be loose cannons.
Teams of senior sailors and Marines serving shore patrol duties roam the Rota area to make sure everyone is behaving and not getting in trouble.
After being at sea for so long, there always are concerns that sailors and Marines will go a little overboard.
So far, there were no reports of any major problems.
Many went out shopping to bring back something for their families and friends.
In addition to gifts, they also will have some sea stories to tell.
Samuels, who spent a brief time in Kuwait during the deployment, said one memory stands out.
“It was long,” he said.