Parallel parking a 100,000-ton aircraft carrier was only part of their job.
First, a small fleet of tugboat operators nudged the Gerald R Ford from Pier 3 at Newport News Shipbuilding into the James River — but not too far — then spun it 180 degrees.
The carefully choreographed move resulted in the forward part of the ship, or bow, facing land when it returned to the pier. It took less than 90 minutes, and the Navy's newest aircraft carrier now looks poised to attack downtown Newport News.
In reality, the move was required to complete further tests on the first-in-class ship before it heads out for sea trials. Certain tests and outfitting need to happen over water, without obstructions from the pier. Flipping the ship resulted in the starboard side facing the water, which allows more work to be done.
In a larger sense, it is one more step toward a new generation of aircraft carrier.
"It's a good signifying event that you're nearing the end of the test program," said Rolf Bartschi, Newport News Shipbuilding vice president of Gerald R. Ford construction.
The shipyard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is the sole builder of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers for the U.S. Navy, and an event like this doesn't come along very often. The Ford hadn't ventured out into the James River since 2013, after it was christened.
This was a relatively short trip, and it didn't go very far — which was the plan. The weather, visibility, tides and river current had to be just right for the tugboats to do their job, said Capt. Tim Axsom, who was at the helm of the Capt. Ambrose, one of two shipyard-owned tugs in the mix. The other was the Huntington.
Tugboats from Moran Norfolk and McAllister Towing of Virginia were also on hand. In all, five tugboats kept the Ford on the straight and narrow. When it finally goes to sea, the $12.9 billion ship will rely on nuclear propulsion. But at the moment, it's dead in the water — prone to drifting with the current and unable to stop on its own.
Axsom played a support role aboard the Capt. Ambrose, staying away from the action as five other tugboats pushed and pulled the ship into position.
The river was clear and there appeared to be plenty of room near Pier 3 for the Ford to maneuver. But that was deceiving.
Not all the area around the pier is dredged to carrier depth. And the ship could only venture into the James about the length of the carrier and a half, Axsom said. He pointed to a buoy in the river that marked the limit.
"That's no man's land," he said.
To start the job, the Huntington served as the power tug, joined to the side of the aircraft carrier by three lines and pulling it along. As it soon as the ship's stern cleared the pier, the tugboats began gently pushing it into a 180-degree turn. At one point, the ship faced the James River Bridge. Then with the bow pointed toward land, it began the slow, careful trip back to Pier 3.
The tugboat operators were aided by docking captains Allen Sutton and Ken Howerton, who were on land and in constant communication with the tugs. There wasn't time for idle chit-chat. Directions were short and to the point.
Huntington back full.
Starboard quarter, back easy two.
The exact nature of the job was clear toward the end, with the Ford back at the pier and seemingly in place.
We've got to get it in shore two feet.
When it was over, Sutton pointed to the mark on the pier that showed where the ship had stopped. It was accurate to the inch.
"That was a good move," he said.
Howerton said planning is a big element. Conditions have to be as close to perfect as possible. Then it's up to the tugs to do their job, and spotters like Sutton and Howerton to direct them.
"She's very big," Howerton said. "So momentum is everything."
Lessig can be reached by phone at 757-247-7821.