NEWPORT NEWS — Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus had more than a professional interest in Saturday’s keel-laying ceremony of the submarine Washington at Newport News Shipbuilding.
He was able to introduce his daughter as the sponsor.
And if it was a big day for him, imagine the experience of 25-year-old Elisabeth Mabus.
With ships sponsor Elisabeth Mabus and her father, Sec. of the Navy Ray Mabus, the keel was laid for the submarine USS Washington Saturday. (Rob Ostermaier, Daily Press)
Earlier in the day, her alma mater, Harvard University, beat Yale in one of college football’s oldest rivalries. Then she saw her initials welded on a steel plate that will be a permanent fixture on the future USS Washington, the newest Virginia-class attack submarine.
The keel-laying, a Navy tradition, marked the ceremonial start of construction for Washington. In fact, shipbuilders have been working on the boat since 2011, and Saturday’s event took place under a large tent with the gaping bow section of the sub facing a crowd of several hundred people.
Mabus spoke haltingly as he prepared to introduce his daughter, saying, “This is the hardest part of the speech.”
She was born when Mabus served as governor of Mississippi, the first child born to a sitting governor there in more than 100 years. She earned the title of “Mississippi’s baby,” sleeping through her first press conference as a 3-day-old.
“In my mind’s eye, she is still about four years old,” he said.
Elisabeth, who wiped away tears as her father spoke, followed him to the podium and admitted it was little odd to be standing in front of the crowd. Usually she’s listening to her father speak.
But she said she looked forward to the experience of being a sponsor, which involves getting to know the officers and crew as the ship comes to life, then following it throughout its service to the nation. She was in college when her father told her a sponsorship was in her future. (Her sister, Annie, will sponsor the submarine Colorado.)
“It’s a big responsibility, and I’m proud to be part of this day,” she said.
It was also a big day for 22-year-old Dustin Utecht, a welder at Newport News Shipbuilding and a native of Richland, Wash. After Elisabeth chalked her initials on a steel plate, Utecht welded the letters into place.
Dustin, whose uncle was a welder, began learning the trade in high school. Seeking to further his craft, he found the Apprentice School at Newport News Shipbuilding while browsing the Internet. He applied, was accepted, and moved across the country to start his career.
He’s finishing his third year of a four-year apprentice program.
In an interview before the ceremony, Dustin said it would not be difficult to trace the initials. The unique part would be doing his job with several hundred onlookers.
“That is a little bit different,” he said. “But since I do it every day, I feel it shouldn’t be too bad.”
It took a few minutes to weld the initials into place, and Dustin checked his progress several times as camera shutters clicked.
The Washington will be the 14th submarine of the Virginia class. Newport News, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, builds the nuclear-powered submarines in partnership with General Dynamics Electric Boat of Groton, Conn.
For Newport News, Washington marked the start of a two submarine per year construction schedule. It is scheduled to be christened in 2015, and like other Virginia-class boats, is on track to be delivered ahead of schedule.
The Navy purchases submarines in blocks, giving Newport News and Electric Boat the certainty of future work. Because the yards can plan ahead, they have consistently come in under budget and ahead of schedule.
Currently, about 100 officers and crew are assigned to Washington. It will be commanded by Cmdr. Jason Schneider