Livin’ large on the barge

ABOARD THE BARGE APL 62 — Navy Seaman Reyes Lozoya Jr. had heard horror stories about his new home.

The sailor, newly assigned to the Everett-based USS Abraham Lincoln, was on the aircraft carrier as it headed to the shipyard in Bremerton for repairs. And like other sailors, Lozoya would be leaving the Lincoln to live on the APL 62, a "berthing barge" docked in the waters next to Naval Station Bremerton.

Seasoned sailors had bent Lozoya’s ear about the barge he’d have to call home.

"It’s horrible," Lozoya said, recalling his shipmates’ warnings. "You don’t want to live there; you want to get an apartment, blah, blah, blah."

"I heard it sucked," he said.

One thing was for sure, however. Lozoya couldn’t keep living on the Lincoln. The aircraft carrier was on its way to almost 10 months in dry dock after a historic 290-day deployment that included action during the war in Iraq. And sailors couldn’t continue to live on the ship as it was ripped apart for repairs.

Along with more than 300 other sailors, Lozoya moved onto the barge. Another 150 or so also live on the ship when they have duty for the night.

From the outside it looks big and ugly. White, bland and boxy, like some ugly offspring of the historic ferry Kalakala.

Only a third the size of the carrier, the 360-foot-long barge has been used by the Navy since 1998.

When ships go in for repairs at Bremerton, sailors sleep, eat and work on the APL 62.

Although it lacks the glamour of an aircraft carrier — no nuclear reactors, no jet-launching catapults, no storeroom for bombs and other weapons — sailors have discovered the barge has a few advantages over the Nimitz-class Lincoln.

"I expected more noise, but it wasn’t that loud over here," said Lozoya, a ship storekeeper who has been in the Navy about 11 months.

It’s tidy, too.

"It’s pretty clean," he said.

That’s because there’s a crew that’s devoted just to cleaning the barge. And like life on the Lincoln, there’s still "Happy Hour" here, the 60 minutes where every sailor grabs a mop, broom or rag and starts cleaning.

There are other similarities, as well: A table is set in the dining area for America’s missing in action. Cell phone use is limited. Sailors have to show their IDs when they step on board.

Shopping is the same, too.

The ship’s store and its merchandise — razors, coffee mugs, hats, packages of beef jerky — was brought over from the Lincoln during a massive move that took about three days in late June.

Other things were packed up and taken to the barge, too, such as the post office, barber shop, and dental and medical departments.

There’s plenty of room for everything, though.

The APL 62 has about 6 acres of space, and three of the four decks have berthing areas for sleeping.

There are nine classrooms, more than 300 toilets, a library, a 12-pew chapel and a gym with treadmills, stationary cycles and StairMasters. There are two laundries — a self-serve one with 24 dryers and 30 washing machines, and an industrial-size laundry with three super-sized washers and two humongous dryers used for sheets, bedding and other items.

Sailors who aren’t working can kick back in one of three lounges, which have plump, blue leather couches and big-screen televisions hooked to cable.

"You wouldn’t see any of those things on the ship," Senior Chief Petty Officer Tom Countryman said, pointing to a large screen 54-inch Mitsubishi.

Countryman is the barge coordinator who oversees daily operations aboard the vessel. Before the Lincoln went in for repairs, Countryman was a dental technician aboard the aircraft carrier.

Another big difference is space. Sailors aren’t joking when they say they’re living large on the barge. The barge has bigger sleeping quarters and larger lockers. Sailors can use stairs to move from deck to deck, instead of ladders.

"Unlike the ship, there’s a lot more space to get around," Countryman said. "They have a lot of room to really spread out."

The dining area — where the lunch menu this day was Salisbury steak and chicken ala-king — is bigger, too.

"We can feed 500 in here, no problem," Countryman said.

The passageways are wider, as well, and there are fewer "knee-knocking" hatches that sailors have to step over.

Another plus: It’s harder to get lost on the barge than on the Lincoln with its maze-like catacombs.

"I found out how to get everywhere on the barge in about two days," said Seaman Latoya Shine, a deck seaman on the Lincoln. "But on the ship, it took me about two months to find my way around comfortably."

The barge, and a sister barge called the APL 61, were built at a shipyard in Mississippi at a cost of about $50 million. With only five years of service, it still looks new.

"When you first think about a barge, your mental picture is: It’s this little cubicle thing, there’s no amenities," Countryman said. "Then you get over here."

A lot of sailors originally got apartments in town, but moved to the barge after finding out living conditions weren’t bad, Countryman said.

"That’s what a lot of young sailors are finding out. They’re like, ‘The barge is pretty nice,’ " he said.

Other sailors live on the barge during the week to avoid the daily commute.

About 450 new sailors have been assigned to the "Abe" since it came back from the war in Iraq. And because the barge doesn’t sway like a ship at sea, the new people haven’t had a chance to develop "sea legs."

"Some sailors have never been under way. So they don’t even know what we’re talking about," Countryman said.

"The barge is really, really nice," he added. "But I can tell you, overall, it’s nice to be on the ship — and under way — and doing different things."

The Lincoln will come back to Everett in early May. That will mean more adjustments for some of the crew.

Lozoya has gotten used to his extra space in his home off the Lincoln. It only took a few trips to the mall.

"I went crazy," Lozoya said.

"I’ll be sending a lot of stuff home in boxes. A lot."

Reporter Brian Kelly: 425-339-3422 or kelly@heraldnet.com.

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