Weekends in the Shipyards [May 2005]   ©Mark Zen

When I first went aboard the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea it was in dry-dock. You could walk under the ship and see all sixteen propeller blades, each the size of a Volkswagen. Every time a Navy ship pulls back into home port after a deployment, it goes into the shipyards for repairs and maintenance. The carrier is basically a piece of metal in a saltwater bath, which causes all sorts of rust and damage.

The ship was alive with shipyard workers, welders and painters, all running their air and power lines throughout the vessel, like tangles of gray spaghetti. There was an ozone smell that permeated the air, which was so dark, you could almost cut it. The department I was attached to had thirty storerooms that needed to be ‘rehabbed’ (rehabilitated) so that the rust was removed, and all surfaces repainted. Five of us were put on the rehab team, which changed each month, so people would not suffer burnout from this horrible job. Nobody wanted to do this drudgery, at least not until I got involved. Being the new guy, I was automatically assigned to the team the first morning I was aboard.

We had a petty officer in charge, and four worker bees doing the needed rehab. There was supposed to be a timetable to adhere to, but the department didn’t seem to be able to keep up with the grueling schedule. To finish before we pulled out to sea for our first sea trial, we had to complete one storeroom a week.

After a week on the job and many conversations with my teammates, I came up with a solution to this problem. Besides chipping and grinding paint all day, there were watches to stand each night. This meant half the time we were short a person, as they slept in after their watch. It turned out that four out of the five of us had family almost too far away to visit during a weekend, about twelve hours away. I proposed we have a ‘fixed’ team, rather than try and rotate people through, as part of the problems was also getting up to speed on how to get equipment, and getting the required permits for ventilation, etc. Then I asked to have the rehab team pulled from watch standing, so we could work longer hours without losing out on much needed sleep.

The rest of the department was off at four p.m. each day, while we worked until 9:30 p.m. We didn’t have a social life during the week, but, we could leave Friday when the storeroom was done and inspected. If we worked hard, we could be off by nine a.m. Friday, and not have to come back until morning “muster” Monday. We got almost a three day weekend, all summer long, in exchange for laboring in dark, dirty, deafening work spaces all week. I used my weekends to go camping and motorcycling through the Appalachian mountains of Virginia, a very worthwhile trade.

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