Restoring the Sacred

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Closer to God in a Kayak III

(USS Saratoga CV-60) Click to enlarge.

A Trip with Jim

In 1994, when the USS Saratoga, CV-60, an aircraft carrier stationed at Naval Station Mayport (just a few miles North of Atlantic Beach), returned from her last deployment to begin preparations for her decommissioning, I decided to paddle out to welcome her and her crew home, since it was to be her last homecoming.

CV-60 was the sixth ship of the U. S. Navy to be named for the Battle of Saratoga in our Revolutionary War. She had seen combat both in the Vietnam War and in Desert Storm. In a 17-day period her aircraft flew over 800 combat strike missions against targets in North Vietnam. During Desert Storm, Saratoga completed 11,000 aircraft launch and recovery cycles – a record. One of her pilots, Scott Speicher, from here in Jacksonville, became the first casualty of the war when his plane was shot down over Iraq. Now she was returning home to be decommissioned and probably put in “mothballs.” It seemed fitting to make a special effort to welcome her and her crew home.

The 9-foot Frenzy was still my only kayak, so it was necessary to paddle out toward the middle buoys long before the Saratoga was due to arrive there (it's difficult to go fast in a 9-foot ocean kayak). The trip out to the channel, though, went very smoothly and did not seem to take nearly as long as anticipated (the reason for that would be discovered on the return). On arrival at the middle buoys, it was time to wait – and wait. At one point, while turning to look back toward my home beach, a lone kayaker was seen off in the distance approaching my position; it was Jim Stehr (my kayaking mentor), who was probably the only other person in the Jacksonville area (other than the relatives of the returning sailors) who was aware of the significance of the upcoming event.

I’ll never forget sitting alongside Jim, he in his yellow Scupper Pro, and I in my black Frenzy, waving to the sailors, resplendently clad in their whites, lining the decks of the ship. Jim kept yelling to them: “Thank you for my freedom,” which seemed to me the most appropriate thing for anybody to shout to those sailors.

The trip back was not nearly as easy as the outbound leg of that journey. Still being somewhat of a novice ocean kayaker, I had not even thought to check the winds (or the Marine forecast) before casting off from the beach. The winds on departure had to have been either negligible or at my back, but by the time the Saratoga arrived in the channel and passed us by we were faced with what seemed like a gale force, and it was head on. The trip back to our beach took more than twice as long as the trip out, and we dared not stop to rest or drink water because we would have been blown backwards and off course. We finally made it, and were met on the beach by Laurie and Cass, who had been waiting impatiently for our return.

The sailors of the aircraft carrier USS SARATOGA (CV-60) file off the ship for the last time at the end of the decommissioning ceremony, on August 20, 1994.

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