How do you park an aircraft carrier? Very carefully

It’s not much like parking your grandmother’s Buick.

Bringing the giant aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln safely into its home pier in Everett, or any other pier, requires scores of personnel, knowledge of an area’s tides and winds and a host of specialized skills.

“It’s a constant battle if the tide is ebbing or the wind is blowing — trying to take us away from the pier,” said the ship’s navigator, Cmdr. Charles Luttrell.

The aircraft carrier is scheduled to arrive about 2 p.m. today from an exercise in Southern California waters.

The idea is to avoid crashing into anything. Decades-long Navy careers are in jeopardy if there’s a collision or the ship goes aground. It’s general knowledge aboard that there’s no such thing as a routine docking.

The tension increases dramatically on the bridge and in the forecastle when a ship, which can displace close to 100,000 tons, approaches land. The Lincoln enters the Strait of Juan de Fuca, staying in the designated shipping lanes.

A group of key people — from the commanding officer down to the enlisted master helmsman — meet to discuss weather, vessel traffic and other things that could affect a successful docking.

The backup systems have backups. Tugs are at the ready, though still far away in Port Gardner.

“If, God forbid, we lose power, we’ve got to be ready to set the anchor,” said Lt. Cmdr. John Regelbrugge, a former deckhand who is known as the “first lieutenant” and is in charge of setting the “special sea-and-anchor” detail.

A dozen coils of 600-foot-long Kevlar mooring lines are at the ready, each capable of withstanding a strain of 280,000 pounds of pressure. Other crew members are prepared to go steer the ship manually in the unlikely event of a power failure.

Lookouts are positioned, equipped with laser range finders. There will come a time in the docking that the commanding officer will want to know how many feet the ship is from the pier where it will tie up.

A young, experienced helmsman gets on the electronically controlled wheel. Knowing when to turn the ship is critical, especially as speeds diminish. Commanding officer Capt. Patrick Hall and the helmsman need to have a mutual understanding and trust, Luttrell said.

The Lincoln’s course jogs in a southwesterly direction in Admiralty Inlet and then makes an abrupt, almost 90-degree, turn east at the foot of Whidbey Island. The ship starts to slow from its previous speed of about 25 miles per hour.

Once around the foot of Whidbey, the Lincoln turns north again, crossing the state ferry route between Clinton and Mukilteo. The ship is constantly in radio communication with the ferries, deciding whether the Lincoln should pass in front of or behind one of the regularly scheduled passenger boats.

By this time, the carrier has slowed and Regelbrugge calls out his detail of 100 or so people who will handle the lines and watch for obstacles.

The Lincoln continues to slow. A harbor pilot boards from a tug and heads for the Lincoln’s bridge, and a decision is made whether to twist the ship to the left or right when it approaches the pier.

The port side of the Lincoln has a single large elevator able to lift warplanes from the hangar deck to the flight deck. The starboard side has three. The Lincoln must always tie up with the three elevators next to the pier. Therefore, it has to turn around.

A left turn is more comfortable for Luttrell.

“A right twist is very uncomfortable because you lose sight of the pier,” he said. A lot depends on the advice of the pilot, he added.

Within 1,500 yards of the pier, the carrier is traveling a little less than 2 mph, and the tugs start their approach to help battle tide and wind.

“The tugs fight to keep us in if there’s a wind. That’s why we use tugs,” Luttrell said. The conditions, he said “are never the same.”

It could easily take an hour or more for the big ship to nestle up to the pier after it starts its spin.

It looks routine. It never is.

As the carrier twists into position, the tugs nudge the huge warship toward the pier, just barely moving.

And when the lines are safely attached to the pier, people like Luttrell can finally relax.

Tense as it may be, parking the Lincoln at Naval Station Everett is easier than docking at most other locations, Luttrell said, partly because the surrounding water here is deep.

“That’s the advantage we have over everyone else,” Luttrell said.

Reporter Jim Haley: 425-339-3447 or

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