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Navy ship back at sea after 2009 grounding

The USS Port Royal has a new captain and has been fixed since the accident

By Gregg K. Kakesako

LAST UPDATED: 1:38 a.m. HST, Jun 25, 2011

With a nearly brand-new crew and more than $78 million in repairs, the Pearl Harbor-based cruiser USS Port Royal is back patrolling the Pacific.

Most of the repairs stem from a 2009 grounding incident near Honolulu Airport's Reef Runway.

Clad in dress whites, the crew lined the rail of the U.S. Navy warship Friday morning as it pulled away from a Pearl Harbor pier.

The deployment will take the 567-foot warship to the western Pacific and the Middle East over the next seven months. The ship's most recent deployment was in 2008.

Only 10 percent of the 300 sailors who were on the 9,600-ton warship in 2009 are still aboard today.

Rear Adm. Dixon Smith, commander of Navy Region Hawaii and Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific, said Friday only one of 30 current officers was aboard during the grounding and that all of the cruiser's 30 chief petty officers -- the warship's core of senior enlisted sailors -- have been replaced through normal rotation.

"This is a brand-new crew," Smith told reporters after the cruiser left Pearl Harbor.

Smith said that the Navy has moved on following the Feb. 25, 2009, incident, in which the warship ran aground at dusk a half-mile off the reef runway in 12 to 14 feet of water while transferring crew members to a smaller craft.

The warship was lodged on the reef for three days and had to be towed to Pearl Harbor. It cost the Navy $6.5 million to restore the reef. In February the Navy agreed to pay $8.5 million to the state to settle the case.

The Port Royal had just completed an $18 million refurbishment and was on the first day of sea trials in 2009 in preparation for a combat deployment when it ran aground.

The grounding cost the Navy $40 million in new repairs. The Port Royal's bow-mounted sonar dome was replaced; the ship's shaft, running gear and propellors were refurbished; the underwater hull was repainted; and there were structural repairs to the ship's tanks and superstructure.

Last year the Navy spent another $20 million to fix cracks discovered in the Port Royal's aluminum alloy superstructure.

"I've put it behind me," Smith said of the grounding. "We've moved forward. The ship has moved forward. It was an unfortunate incident that I think we all regret. We always learn from our mistakes, and I'd like to think we've taken the corrective actions that we needed to and we've moved on."

The admiral added the incident emphasized that "training is important" and "situational awareness is important."

"We had to resharpen our focus," he said.

Petty Officer 3rd Class John Lester, who served on the Port Royal until Thursday, was working in the ship's mess when it hit the reef.

"It was as bad as everyone made it out to be," said Lester, 21. "It was a catastrophe. We all reported to our damage control stations as we were trained to do."

Petty Officer 3rd Class Larry Morris, 24, another crew member, who like Lester has moved on to another assignment, said the three days the Port Royal was stuck on the reef were "very rough" and "very tiring."

Capt. Eric Weilenman now commands the Port Royal. He is the third Port Royal skipper since the dismissal of Capt. John Carroll, who was in charge of the warship at the time of the grounding. Three other officers and a sailor received nonjudicial punishment.

The Navy's Safety Investigation Board found several factors contributed to the grounding, including an apparent failure to recalibrate navigation equipment.

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