Byline: Christopher F. Aguilar, Shorelines staff writer
The bridge of the USS John F. Kennedy is black at 4 a.m. on a recent Saturday, so dark that the command center's interior is barely visible.
Only the dim glimmer of screens and a couple of red lights illuminate the space and the small group of officers and sailors stationed there.
But they like it that way. The darkness works to their advantage.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Justin Bachert said the darkness on the bridge and throughout the Mayport-based ship's exterior prevents enemies from spotting the carrier at night.
It also helps the Kennedy crew spot other military and commercial ships, he said.
The Kennedy's bridge is 109 feet off the water and provides the crew with a 15-nautical-mile range of vision on a clear day, but in the darkness of night and rough seas, that visibility is reduced to a few nautical miles. So the carrier must rely on its Global Positioning System equipment and its quartermasters and helmsmen for guidance.
Atlantic Beach resident Bachert, one of the ship's 10 quartermasters and a helmsman, leans over the navigation charts. He is training a new quartermaster while keeping track of a computer screen that shows the ship's course and gauges the wind and other data.
Every 30 minutes, Bachert tracks the course on GPS, plots the next hour's projected course on a chart and once a day he uses a sextant, an instrument used by mariners for centuries to chart their course using celestial bodies.
"They [sextants] are pretty old, but they still work pretty good," Bachert said. "We could obtain a position as close as one-tenth of a mile from a celestial fix."
Quartermasters are also trained as helmsmen, who steer the ship and help guide it in and out of ports.
"There is not much room for error," Bachert said. "You really have to have a good feel for the ship."
Bachert is one of the roughly 5,000 Kennedy sailors whose job might not get public recognition but is essential for the operation of the 36-year-old carrier. From bakers to laundry attendants to engineers deep inside the ship operating its eight boilers, six generators and thousands of pumps, they help operate a "city at sea" that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The Kennedy is on a training exercise off the coast of Florida to get its sailors, air wing and support ships working as a cohesive unit. The composite unit training exercise is the second of three training periods that the carrier and its strike group must complete before it is ready for deployment.
Rear Adm. Donald Bullard, who is in charge of the Kennedy strike group, said the men and women who serve on the carrier enjoy when the media visit because they know that their job is important.
"We always asked the generation under 25 to serve their country," he said. "These men and women are doing a great job. Our country can be confident they have a great generation."
In the carrier's barbershop, Petty Officer 3rd Class Amy Alford buzzes a fellow sailor's hair. The west Beaches resident credits the Navy with helping her communicate with people and get over her shyness.
Alford is part of the ship's serviceman crew and has worked as a hairstylist, a laundry attendant and at the ship's store in her four years on the carrier.
She said their job is important because if the ship's servicemen are not doing their jobs, sailors will complain.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Thai Pham welcomes sailors to the carrier's library with a bright smile. The religious program specialist is in charge of the library and maintaining and arranging the carrier's chapel for different religious services.
"We boost morale spiritwise, mentalwise and physicalwise," he said. "People come in depressed and we try to make them smile. Things we do here brightens their day."
Pham and the other religious program specialists also run different social services programs to assist the sailors in their daily life. …