Tester leads christening of USS Billings

by Matt Hoffman, Billings Gazette

There’s a lot of pomp and circumstance surrounding a new ship.

There’s the mast-stepping ceremony, which dates back to ancient Roman times. There’s the christening, where the ship’s sponsor had to do several practice runs to ensure she could break a champagne bottle. There’s the launch, where the future USS Billings slid free of a set of locked ramps and crashed into Lake Michigan, looking as if it were about to topple over before settling upright.

The culmination of festivities was remarkably quick, given the years of work put into the vessel at the shipyard in Marinette, Wisconsin.

Sponsor Sharla Tester, the wife of U.S. Senator Jon Tester, broke a champagne bottle against the ship’s bow with a clang, and almost simultaneously, the ship started sliding. The whole process took about 10 seconds.

“It’s overwhelming,” she said. “I’m still in awe.”

The Billings, which doesn’t officially get its name until it’s commissioned, is the 15th vessel in the Littoral Combat Ship class, a series of boats designed to meld speed, firepower and flexibility in mission capabilities.

The ceremony at the shipyard for Marinette Marine, which is owned by an Italian company contracted by Lockheed Martin to build the ships, was attended by U.S. Navy officials and politicians ranging from U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, to a trio of Billings City Council members, plus a few hundred other attendees.

“I am absolutely honored,” he said. “Billings, Montana, is honored.”

Navy officials announced in 2013 that the ship would be the first combat vessel to bear Billings’ name. The ship, which is about 83 percent finished, is slated to be handed over to the Navy in 2018.

Tester, Hanel, and city councilmen Al Swanson, Chris Friedel and Ryan Sullivan toured the Billings on Friday.

“Oh, this is just … wow,” said Tester as she climbed onto the 389-foot long ship’s deck.

On Friday, the group also attended a mast-stepping ceremony, which dates back to ancient mariners who would place currency in a ship’s mast to ensure their passage to the afterlife if they died at sea.

Commanding Officer Nathan Rowan, who will lead one of two crews for the ship, thanked all who added to the canister.

“I like to think that these gifts … will shape her life and chart her course,” Rowan said. “Will she be a lucky ship? A tenacious ship? Tradition bound? A historic ship? She will be the ship that all of us make her.”

Tester placed a jar of Montana dirt filled with five different seeds that she said were planted on the family’s farm near Big Sandy. Hanel added a Billings Police Department patch, City of Billings lapel pin, his mayoral business card, and his personal Billings lapel pin with his name.

Rowan, an amicable man, also noted the addition of a bottle of Kraken-brand rum.

“Hopefully I live long enough to get that back out and drink it,” he said.

He also ribbed Hanel, telling him not to change his phone number listed on the business card.

“We’re gonna call you on that card in 25 years,” he said.

On Friday’s tour, Rowan and other officers got a look at the partially-completed ship’s interior.

“Seeing it like this, it just kind of hits you,” said Senior Chief Jose Ramiro.

Rob Dumalo, commanding officer for the ship’s other rotating crew, softly tapped walls as he walked along, grazed railings, brushed knobs and patted a first-aid kit fixed to a wall. Saturday’s events were largely about the name on the ship; soon, the sailors inside will chart its course.