‘A city at sea’: Life on board the USS George HW Bush aircraft carrier

Many aspects of daily life here look familiar – going to work, lifting weights in the gym, calling Mum and Dad. But just one night on this vast vessel is enough to know that this is no ordinary place to live, writes Laura Mackenzie

The USS George HW Bush performs a passing exercise in the Mediterranean Sea on March 5, 2017 with the guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea and the Greek navy’s Elli-class frigate HN Kountouriotis. Courtesy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Michael B Zingaro / US navy
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ABOARD THE USS GEORGE HW BUSH // They call it a “city at sea”.

But though many aspects of daily life here look familiar – going to work, lifting weights in the gym, calling Mum and Dad – just one night on the USS George HW Bush is enough to know that this is no ordinary city.

The thunderous whooshing sound of the "catapults" being tested throughout the night on the flight deck above is hardly conducive to a good night's sleep; they are a reminder of the combat jets that these devices help launch from the aircraft carrier. And these jets in turn are a reminder of the air strikes being launched from this ship on ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria – and the civilians caught up in wars being fought in cities on land, less than 2,000 kilometres away.

It can be easy to forget all that aboard this vast vessel, where nearly 5,000 members of the US navy are busy keeping the ship and its two nuclear reactors running – many on very little sleep and struggling with hardships much closer to home.

Missing home

Take Petty Officer First Class Marshall Tripp, 23, a diesel mechanic. He was married for just two months before the USS George HW Bush set sail from Norfolk, Virginia, on January 21. Since then, he has become a father.

“One-month-old Evelyn Grace, she was born February 11, seven-and-a-half pounds. I wasn’t there [for her birth] unfortunately. So that’s definitely hard,” says the San Diego native. He will not meet his baby until the carrier returns to the United States in the summer.

“[My wife] emails me all the time saying, you know, she’s having a hard time,” he adds.


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If his tone seems matter-of-fact, it’s only a reflection of the general culture on board ship, where banter, optimism and structure are the order of the day. Command Master Chief Huben L Phillips, the most senior enlisted sailor on board, says a lot of work goes into increasing the resilience of young and new sailors, as well as making them “feel tough” and “exceptional” – no small task given that most of those on board are younger than petty officer Tripp, and that this deployment to the Arabian Gulf is their first anywhere.

Like many of the young people aboard the carrier, Yeoman Third Class Juliana Brito has missed important life milestones during her deployment. On the day the ship left port in the US she turned 21.

“It was hard for [my family when I left],” says Yeoman Brito, a New Yorker who joined the navy straight out of high school. “They didn’t really understand what it is, they’re foreign, they’re from another country [the Dominican Republic] as well so they don’t really get being out to sea. Why do we have to go several months?”

But so far, she says, being away from home is “surprisingly, not as bad as I thought it would be”, thanks to the camaraderie on board.

The carrier bubble

The physical distance from home and land is exacerbated by non-existent mobile phone signal and Wi-Fi, while the carrier’s satellite internet is extremely slow. Crew members say the bandwidth for the entire carrier is about 50 per cent of the service for an average UAE apartment.

There are payphones on board but one of the pilots, who recently turned 30, has been trying out more old fashioned methods of communication; he is sending postcards home, some illustrated with his own watercolour paintings.

The notion of writing letters provokes a chuckle from one of the ship’s older servicemen, an oral surgeon in his 60s who is already past the navy’s official retirement age. Most of the mail delivered to the ship by aircraft is Amazon orders, he says.

So how does a new father who has not yet seen his baby cope with the communication hurdles?

“I see pictures of her every day and get to FaceTime her when I can, when we pull in [to port] which is good,” says Petty Officer Tripp. After family, the food at home and his own bed are the things he misses most, he adds.

On board ship, he shares a room of bunks with 15 other men. “Close quarters definitely,” he says. “Got to … change in front of each other ... I mean, definitely not a lot of personal space”.

But in true navy style, he immediately puts a positive spin on it: “It’s definitely a good way to interact with people, you meet people from different areas of the world and you get to know their way of life and where they’re coming from.”

Huge responsibility, little sleep

Yeoman Brito likes to exercise in the evenings so she gets by on around six hours of sleep a night. Even this is generous compared to some on board. “Lights out” are at 10pm, following a short non-denominational prayer played on the ship’s intercom, but that doesn’t mean everyone can go to bed. One crew member says his job in the supply department only permits him to sleep for around three or four straight hours a night, although he tries to snatch naps during the day.

The low priority given to sleep is all the more surprising given the weighty responsibilities that even the youngest on board must bear. The US$6.2 billion (Dh22.8bn) ship is often steered by 18 and 19-year-olds, while the sailors working on the flight deck are operating on 1.82 hectares “of the most dangerous property in the world”, according to the carrier’s executive officer, Captain Gavin Duff.

So what do the sailors do for fun?

“I work out,” says Yeoman Brito. “I like to write sometimes but mostly it’s working out. Just lifting [weights], going to the gym for an hour or two [every day] just helps my mind get clear.”

There are seven gyms on board, including an outdoor gym with a sea view, and up to seven fitness classes are scheduled every day – everything from spin and yoga to crossfit and circuit training. Some crew members recently ran a marathon on the flight deck in solidarity with family members taking part in a marathon back home in Virginia. There’s even a full-time fitness coordinator, who, in keeping with the US navy’s love for nicknames, is known as “Fit Boss”.

A “Fun Boss”, meanwhile, takes care of other extra-curricular pursuits – from board games and cupcake decorating to tours when the ship is in port. The carrier holds slam poetry and improv comedy nights and has its own gospel choir and official band, reinforcing the notion that this really is a “city at sea”.

And, as in every city around the world, the ship is also a place where some of the crew meet their future wives and husbands.

Petty Officer Tripp actually met his wife on the ship, during his first deployment. “Our first date … [was] just eating dinner where everybody else is eating dinner so it’s not exactly a candlelit dinner,” he says.

“[Dating is] something that we’re not supposed to do on the ship but it’s something that you can’t control, I believe … You can’t help the way you feel about somebody.”