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Norfolk Naval Shipyard: The Navy’s go-to place for anchor chain repairs

An aerial view of the U.S. Navy Norfolk Naval Shipyard located on the Elizabeth River, Virginia. (Robert J. Sitar/U.S. Navy)

The day Norfolk Naval Shipyard workers were to start painting the anchor chain for the carrier USS John C. Stennis arrived, and on his way from the shop to a morning meeting, Shop 11F leader John Sales fielded three phone calls to make sure everything was ready.

Working on 85- to 95-foot lengths of chain — called shots — when each link weighs 300 pounds isn’t easy.

Especially since none of the mechanics in Sales’ shop — or the painters preparing their gear, or the riggers who lift and shift the shots — had ever handled a carrier anchor chain.

“I’d say the shots are three times as heavy as anything else we work on,” Sales said.

Norfolk Naval Shipyard is the Navy’s “center of excellence” for anchor chain repairs, and handles that work for ships across the fleet.

When the Stennis shots arrived, learning how to handle the giant carrier chains was the first job for the metal forgers and mechanics in Shop 11F, as well as the riggers from Shop 72.

“When a link weighs 300 pounds, a steel-toe boot isn’t going to help much if your foot’s there; if it falls on your hand it’s going to be bad,” Sales said.

Getting a feel for moving shots across the floor with the riggers’ overhead bridge crane and using pry bars to position links in the different orientations needed for the forgers’ detailed inspection went slowly at first.

But as the team turned to new, 5-foot pry bars as a way to keep hands and feet well clear, the pace of work is closer to what they do on smaller chains for destroyers, submarines and cruisers, Sales said.

Forge shop mechanics like Eric Lynch and Jesse Dalton can’t get started on those inspections until riggers load the chains into a “Wheelabrator” machine — imagine a giant washing machine that uses steel shot instead of water — to blast off old paint and rust.

Back out of the blaster, the mechanics will sit on the floor, a manual of chain specifications and drawings alongside. With a set of gauges, and at times even a micrometer, they check to see if corrosion or wear have eaten away too much of the metal on any link. Micrometers can measure widths to an accuracy of 1/1000th of millimeter.

They check, too, to see if any links have stretched too far, and look for cracks or other surface signs of wear or metal fatigue.

They’ll ask riggers to lift a shot in the air, and with a hammer tap each link, listening for a specific sound that tells them the metal inside remains solid.

“It’s a lot of coordination and teamwork in order to get a chain operational and ready to return to its vessel,” said Lynch.

If a link is bad, the forge shop team will cut the sides with a torch so it can be freed from the links on either side. Then, they’ll replace it with one of the detachable links that connect the chain shots to make the anchor chain.

If enough links don’t meet specifications, they’ll reject the whole shot and ask Stennis to order a new one.

The first few shots of the Stennis chains had made it through inspection this week, which was why Sales was fielding phone calls — to the mechanics in his shop, the riggers and the painters — to make sure they all were set for the first carrier anchor chain paint job in years.

The teams had to move the chains back to the Wheelabrator — “we’re right by the water and we need to remove any flash corrosion before painting,” Sales said — and then from the shot blast machine to the area where the painters were setting up their spray equipment and protective cloths.

Everything was on track — a nice change from this winter’s work on the chains for the Norfolk-based cruiser USS Philippine Sea.

One of the things the painters must do before they start is check temperatures and humidity to make sure paint hardens correctly and sticks to the metal of each link. Winter weather, in the changeable Virginia style, plays havoc with painting plans.

“We might be just a degree or two out of the zone, so they couldn’t paint … but they’d come back every 30 minutes, every hour to check and see if we could get started,” Sales said. “Everybody got very fluid; we came up with alternate plans for the painters, see if people could work after hours.”

“When a job comes up, we all step up to do our part to get the job done with first-time quality so the chains can get back to what they are intended to do,” said Dalton.

And, in the end, they delivered the Philippine Sea’s anchor chains on time.


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