MANILA: It’s like a little floating town, with a movie theatre, Starbucks café, yoga lessons with an ocean view, and a well-equipped medical centre among the amenities.
But this is no pleasure cruise for the 5,000-odd souls on board. Not when the vessel you’re on is a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, which has seen action in theatres of conflict in the Middle East; been part of disaster relief efforts in post-earthquake Haiti; and is now on patrol in the strategically vital South China Sea.
On board the USS Carl Vinson’s massive flight deck, which is as large as three football fields, the roar of aircraft is a constant, with flight operations taking place day and night. This was the deck from which the body of Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden was reportedly buried at sea in 2011.
It’s a risky place to work. During a recent media visit on board the Nimitz-class supercarrier, operations officer Lieutenant Commander Mason Berry handed out safety vests prior to showing us the flight works.
“These are going to keep you safe, in the event you get blown off into the water,” he cautioned. “Unlikely, but possible.”
Below deck, there is a contrasting sense of normalcy. As superjets roar overhead, folks on their downtime munch on lunch and raved about chocolate chip cookies in the cafeterias.
A group of men and women perform deadlifts and other workouts at the gym situated in a corner of the hanger bay, with the air wing maintenance crew busy at work within earshot.
Others are limbering up with yoga, plus the benefit of fresh ocean air and a sea-and-sky view.
The hangar bay holds part of the more than 70 aircraft on the carrier, and daily inspections are conducted before an aircraft can take off. Some 2,000 of the people on board are air wing staff.
With 3,000 rooms and endless hallways giving the illusion of an infinity mirror, finding your way around below deck is a skill that takes weeks to master.
It’s also easy to lose track of time, the passing of day and night, if you stay below for a prolonged period. Crew and staff spend four to six months on board during each deployment.
White lights are switched to red in the evenings, to help the crew sleep and to adjust their Circadian rhythm.
Food is another way people on board tell the day of the week.
For example, Saturdays are pizza days, and Sunday brunch is the meal which every sailor looks forward to - a full spread of pancakes and waffles.
So that the sailors don’t get bored with the food, no same menu is served twice in 21 days. What this means is that the galley staff have to master some 1,600 recipes.
For Gorden Rasheed (above), 28, who has been serving as a ‘culinary specialist’ on the Carl Vinson for five years, the best part of the job is being able to cook his own personalised meals, instead of partaking of the set menus.
“Cooking all that food (for others) all day, you don’t really feel for it, it ruins your appetite,” said the self-described picky eater.
Snacks such as Pop Tarts, candy bars and energy drinks can also be found in wardrooms and the convenience store.
This is why the dentistry department is so important, and also the “most feared” place on the ship, joked senior dental officer Hien Trinh (below). “You’ll see a lot of vending machines for candy - you name it, they have it. Obviously, we fix (the consequences), that’s why we’re here.”
Looking after the sailors’ well-being are three flight surgeons, one general surgeon, one Intensive Care Unit nurse, and a family practice doctor, who run the medical centre.
“We do have a few emergencies on board - it’s a very industrious environment, so people do get hurt,” said senior medical officer Grant Wallace. “We don’t have to move the ship to somewhere where we can fly somebody on board; we can take care of it here."
During the Haiti earthquake relief efforts, some victims were also treated on board.
With a ship and crew this huge, it is important that newly-deployed individuals undergo a three-month experience in backend operations, such as the domestics department, to understand how the ship functions as a whole: Each part is as important as the other.
Aviation ordnanceman Gillianna Dolce was seen cleaning tables and replenishing food trays on the line during lunch, though her ‘regular’ job is servicing bombs or “building stuff that bombs are put on”.
“I used to work at Dairy Queen, so it reminds me a lot of what I used to do back home,” the 19-year-old said. “It’s a good combined effort to make sure everything runs smoothly here.”
WATCH: A tour in 3:35min