Five months is a long time to live on a ship, even if that ship is a fifth of a mile long, rides 20 stories high over the water, and can house nearly 6000 sailors and 80 aircraft. “A city at sea” is how a National Geographic television special referred to USS Ronald Reagan. While it has familiar conveniences, such as snack stores, a post office, a gym, and barbershops, life on board hardly resembles civilian life.
The atmosphere is boiler-room industrial. Sunlight does not penetrate the inside of a Navy ship. When sailors move about, they travel through a series of low-ceilinged, narrow hallways, up and down ladder wells and over bulkhead passageways called “knee knockers,” due to the shin-height iron lip of the opening. Bundles of wires snake overhead in hallways, berthing quarters, and staterooms, and footsteps echo down iron corridors at all hours. The constant hum of machinery and ship operations creates a white noise so ubiquitous that many sailors upon returning home suffer anxiety-induced sleeplessness in its absence.
Despite the massive size of the ship, living quarters are tight, and most sailors spend the majority of their time in a very small section of all that square footage.
As both a lieutenant commander and a division officer, Donovan is one of the fortunate few who live in staterooms rather than the berthing quarters that hold over 100 racks (beds). For the five months of his recent deployment, he had five roommates, and the room they shared had three sets of bunk-bed-style racks, which he says are “long enough to fit in but not really [wide] enough to roll around in.” It also included a small living-room area with desks and a television. While many civilians may squirm at the thought of so little privacy, this arrangement of only six sailors to a room is a luxury afforded to few on board a Navy ship.
“All this is pretty much 90 or 100 feet from where I work,” Donovan says, referring to his sleeping quarters. In fact, most sailors’ accommodations are located on the same deck as their primary work space. Even the wardroom (officers’ dining/meeting room) was less than 200 feet from Donovan’s stateroom.
The close proximity between living and working areas is both logical and deliberate. Just as there’s nothing but a few feet of iron corridor between a sailor’s work and “home” on the ship, the line between work time and off time is hard to distinguish.
“My job is to make sure the division is running and [everyone is] handling things the way I feel that they should, in a fair and proper manner. Some people are very good operators and technicians but not very good…” he pauses to search for the right word, “people people. But they make rank, and now they’re in management positions. Sometimes they need a little guidance on how to do their jobs.”
This means being available at all hours.
“Pretty much from the time we wake up to the time we go to bed, we’re at work. Even when you’re asleep, you’re at work. I can get woken up in the middle of the night — for anything.”
Free time is nothing more than snatches of time here and there. For Donovan, it means going to the gym or working on projects like organizing his iTunes library. Sometimes, if he has a little privacy and the time difference works out, he calls home to check on Cherise and the kids.
“Being a division officer, I have access to what they call a POTS line, which allows me to make phone calls from the ship.” (POTS stands for “plain old telephone service.” The only other way to make calls is with pay phones, but they’re expensive.)
As much as he misses his family, the phone doesn’t always help.
“There’s a time delay on the phone, and you feel very distant,” he says. “It gets kind of old too, because, ‘Hey, what did you do?’ ‘Oh, I went to work today and the kids went to school.’ You get a few new things that come up, and sometimes we have stuff to talk about. Then other times, there’s just not that much.”
Donovan’s social demeanor is neither tightly wound nor particularly authoritative, as a civilian might expect in a Navy officer. He is, however, the typical military man in that he refuses to complain. All the details he offers are just that — details, not complaints. Even as he admits that it’s hard to be away from his family for so many months at a time, he is quick to point out the perks of his job, such as recent stops in Dubai, Thailand, and Singapore. He says he appreciates the quiet moments of ship life, such as “being out in the middle of the ocean and watching the sun set or watching planes fly off the flight deck.”
In some ways, he says, daily life on board the ship is simpler than life at home “because you only have to worry about you. Obviously, you worry about your work, but as far as taking care of yourself, you wake up, you go to a place where the food’s already made, and you eat. You don’t have to cook. Pretty much everything you need is there. You eat, sleep, use the restroom, go to work, and that’s it. There’s nothing else you have to worry about.”
Meanwhile, in Donovan’s absence, the day-to-day life Cherise leads is anything but simple. A week or two after my conversation with Donovan, she sits leaning against the arm of a bone-colored sofa in her den, snacking on a bag of cherry-flavored Craisins.
Monday through Friday, she tells me, she’s up at 6:00 so she can get her 12-year-old daughter Bailey to the bus by 6:45. (Twice a week, she’s up at 5:00 to fit in time at the gym.) Next, she bathes, gets herself ready for work, and wakes her 9-year-old son Cameron so he can catch his bus by 8:35. Then it’s off to work at the nursing agency from 9:00 to 5:00.