The commissioning of the USS Little Rock was held in Buffalo last month, on a day so cold that people’s breath billowed through the air as they spoke.
Partway through the ceremony, snow began falling — sideways — on the thousands of attendees.
It might have been a sign.
Still, none of it stopped a string of military officials and a bundled-up delegation from Arkansas from singing the praises of the Navy’s newest warship for more than an hour.
One Navy official spoke of the combat ship’s “adaptability, speed and maneuverability.” A Navy chaplain bowed his head in prayer to bless the Little Rock before it sailed to its home port, Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville.
“We commend this ship, the USS Little Rock, to your care and divine providence,” the chaplain said. “Grant them fair winds and following seas.”
Despite the benedictions, the ship’s maiden voyage has gotten off to a rather inauspicious start. A week after it was commissioned, as it made its way up the Saint Lawrence Seaway, the USS Little Rock became trapped by ice near Montreal.
It has remained stuck there since Christmas Eve, the Toronto Star first reported, thanks to “unusually heavy ice conditions.”
A Navy spokeswoman told The Washington Post that other ships had made it through the area without trouble in late November and early December. Because of bad weather, the USS Little Rock’s departure from Buffalo had been pushed back after its Dec. 16 commissioning, and it was further delayed during a routine port visit in Montreal, she said.
“Significant weather conditions prevented the ship from departing Montreal earlier this month and icy conditions continue to intensify,” Lt. Cmdr. Courtney Hillson said in a statement.
“The temperatures in Montreal and throughout the transit area have been colder than normal, and included near-record low temperatures, which created significant and historical conditions in the late December, early January timeframe.”
Temporary heaters and 16 de-icers have been added to the USS Little Rock, and its crew members — some 70 officers and personnel in all — have been given new cold-weather clothing while staying on the ship for training and certification during the delay, Hillson added.
“Keeping the ship in Montreal until waterways are clear ensures the safety of the ship and crew, and will have limited impact on the ship’s operational schedule,” she said. “While in port, the crew of Little Rock will continue to focus on training, readiness and certifications.”
In a phone interview, Hilton said there was no date set for departure from Montreal, but noted that the ice in the Saint Lawrence Seaway historically melts enough for safe passage by mid-March.
When asked whether the Navy had considered using icebreakers to free the trapped ship earlier, Hillson said that “all options were considered” before the decision was made to keep the ship in Montreal.
“Safety is our top priority — the safety of our sailors and the safety of our ship,” she said.
According to the Navy’s website, the USS Little Rock is a 389-ft-long littoral combat ship — “a fast, agile, mission-focused platform designed to operate in near-shore environments, while capable of open-ocean tasking and winning against 21st-century coastal threats such as submarines, mines, and swarming small craft.”
It uses “two gas turbine engines, two propulsion diesels and four waterjets to [reach] speeds up to 45-plus knots” — when it’s not surrounded by ice, that is.
The USS Little Rock was named after another ship that was commissioned in 1945, at the end of World War II.
The original USS Little Rock was ultimately taken out of service in 1976 and now rests as part of a museum in Buffalo’s waterfront district, along with other decommissioned naval ships.
As Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown pointed out at the December ceremony, the commissioning of the second USS Little Rock marked the first time in the Navy’s 242-year history that a ship was commissioned alongside its namesake.