NAVAL STATION ROTA, Spain — Rota’s base population just about doubled this past week as nearly 5,000 U.S. sailors and Marines, either on their way to or back from the Middle East, descended on the Atlantic Ocean base for a port visit.

The largest chunk of the influx, about 4,700, are sailors and Marines from the Expeditionary Strike Group led by the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge, which pulled into the Rota pier Saturday.

The strike group is made up of the Norfolk, Va.-based Kearsarge, amphibious warfare ship USS Ashland and the amphibious transport dock USS Ponce, and has with it the roughly 2,000 Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit out of Camp Lejeune, N.C.

About 280 sailors from the Norfolk, Va.-based destroyer USS Stout also landed in Rota on Saturday. They are part of the Navy experimental “sea swap” program, in which destroyers are left out to sea while the crews are swapped in and out.

The Stout sailors, called “Crew Sierra” for this particular six-month deployment, will replace the crew currently on the destroyer USS Gonzalez, the first East Coast-based warship to participate in “sea swap.” It is currently in the Persian Gulf operating as part of the USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group.

The Gonzalez left Norfolk on March 25, manned by the crew of the USS Laboon. Now six months later, the Stout crew is taking over. Instead of sailing a destroyer from the United States to the Middle East, the new crew will fly in to replace the old crew, who will fly home.

Along the way, they’ll make port calls, so the experiment doesn’t take away that naval tradition, sailors said.

A 21-sailor advance crew from the Stout already is on the Gonzalez and reporting that the ship is in good condition for the takeover, said Lt. Cmdr. Jason Haen, the executive officer.

Sea swap does not increase sailors’ sea time, only the vessel’s. It eliminates the roughly 30- to 45-day transit time to sail to a destination. When started two years ago, the San Diego-based USS Higgins spent 416 days in the Middle East, about 116 days longer than a destroyer’s normal deployment cycle.

Last year, however, the Government Accountability Office reported that the program produced poor sailor morale and increased ship maintenance problems.

The Stout sailors are approaching the deployment with a slightly changed mind-set. Instead of being attached to a ship, they’re attached to each other as a crew, and leaders work to keep the crews motivated and provide “quality of life” incentives such as the five-day port visit in Rota, said Lt. Tom Meyer, with Naval Surface Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet.

The verdict is still out on the success of the program as Navy officials determine if the 18-month deployment cycle causes too much wear and tear on the destroyer, Meyer said.

This past week in Rota, the Morale Welfare and Recreation office boosted activities to accommodate the influx of sailors and Marines, offering adventure classes, historical tours, hours to shop and physical fitness challenges, said MWR Director Tom Moriarty.

Tours included trips to the city of Cádiz, visits to Flamenco shows and shopping malls. The base gym extended hours to midnight, and officials threw together several basketball tournaments that proved quite popular, Moriarty said.

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