A ship surrounded by ice for months with nowhere to go and a Navy captain who weathered multiple hurricanes during his time as commanding officer had to share the spotlight Thursday as big changes came to both of Jacksonville's major military installations.
One Navy base said goodbye to its old commanding officer and welcomed a new one. The other got its first glimpse of the ship delayed by weather since Christmas Eve.
The beautiful conditions Thursday served as a stark contrast to what most people were talking about at both events.
"Certainly we are praying that we do not have any more hurricanes this year," said Capt. Michael Connor, who took over command of Naval Air Station Jacksonville.
He said the recent heavy storms that hit the area brought a lot of challenges but also ensured safeguards are in place in case something similar happens down the line.
The USS Little Rock sat in Montreal, moored to a dock since late December, before it could continue the transit from Wisconsin to Naval Station Mayport on the last day of March. It was supposed to arrive in January, but an unseasonably early winter prevented the crew from making the trip as planned. The ship stopped in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Virginia Beach, Va., before making the final push to Florida.
It was built in Marinette, Wis., and commissioned to the Navy in December in Buffalo, N.Y., before the extended stop north of the border. It's the third ship in Mayport's Littoral Combat Ship Squadron Two and the first to arrive since the USS Milwaukee and USS Detroit were welcomed late in 2016.
There are two types of littoral ships in the Navy designed to operate close to shore with steerable jet propulsion -- the Freedom class and Independence class.
The Freedom ships have traditional hulls made of steel with aluminum superstructures and are based at Mayport. The Independence ships are based in San Diego and are made entirely from aluminum with trimaran hulls.
Family members waved and cheered from the Mayport pier as the Little Rock glided through the opening of the St. Johns River under clear skies and mild temperatures first thing in the morning.
The littoral ships use a Blue/Gold crewing dynamic where two crews rotate the responsibilities of operating the ship, so the Blue Crew became quite familiar with the Little Rock while training all winter in the frigid Canadian climate. But many members of the Gold Crew got their first look at their ship Thursday when it finally arrived at Mayport.
Some children hugged their fathers for the first time in months while other sailors were getting the chance to hold newborn babies for the first time.
The picturesque day was even more ironic at the Naval Air Station where Capt. Sean Haley relinquished command to Capt. Michael Connor. The shelter provided for the ceremony by the hangar was really unnecessary since there was barely a cloud in the sky during the ceremony.
Haley's stretch in command will forever be marked by much more severe weather than the ideal conditions on his final morning as commanding officer. He led the base's recovery efforts after Hurricanes Matthew and Irma tore through Jacksonville in 2016 and 2017. Hurricane Hermine also gave base personnel a scare when he first took control in August 2016, and squadrons from the base took part in surveillance missions in Texas and Puerto Rico following Hurricanes Harvey and Maria last year.
Retired Navy Capt. Howard Wanamaker relinquished command to Haley back in August 2016, and he was among many dignitaries in the crowd Thursday.
"Thanks for your mentorship, brother, it's great to see you here today, and I appreciate all the hurricanes in the turnover," Haley said. "That was awesome. The guy leaves, and six weeks later the first hurricane comes."
Haley also oversaw the opening of the new commissary in 2017 and will still have the opportunity to use it in his new position as chief of staff for Navy Region Southeast, headquartered at NAS.
Connor won't have to move much either as he takes over a familiar command after serving as executive officer under Haley. Both men were clear Thursday that they relied on each other a lot during their time serving together.
"While NAS Jax was your command, you always made it feel like it was our command," Connor said during the ceremony.
He encouraged the members of the audience to strive to be the best base possible while also enjoying the most military-friendly community in the nation. Connor pointed out his civilian CrossFit family is made up of some of his closest friends outside the Navy. As a fitness enthusiast, he was happy to see some of his CrossFit friends in the crowd.
Connor got his first taste of the area when he was an F/A-18 pilot stationed at the former Naval Air Station Cecil Field before the base shut down in the late 1990s.
"Jacksonville was my first choice for a base, and I was thrilled that I got it," Connor said after the ceremony.
He said he's excited about what the future holds at the base, much like the Navy community at Mayport showed their excitement when the new ship pulled into the dock.
This article is written by Joe Daraskevich from The Florida Times-Union and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.