The crew of the national security cutter Hamilton stood the ship's first watch Monday, following a ceremony and celebration for the ship's delivery to the Coast Guard.

The ship is now weeks away from its first underway and less than three months from its commissioning date, the ship's commanding officer told Navy Times, and his team is just excited to get things going.

"The pace of things the last couple of months has been [close to] frenetic," Capt. Douglas Fears said in a Sept. 16 phone interview from Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi, where his team is working.

The delivery is a milestone three years in the making, bringing the service the fourth of the eight cutters that Coast Guard officials call "the centerpiece" of their fleet. It is also an achievement for the cutter's plankowning crew, many of whom sought this duty. Fears learned late last year that he'd be the first CO of the Hamilton, his first choice in the assignment process, after a shore tour in Washington, D.C.

"I was just tickled to death to get the call that I was coming to Hamilton," he said.

It's his first time standing up a command from scratch, Fears said, but he had plenty of advice from the COs of the three previously commissioned NSCs, all personal acquaintances from his time in the Coast Guard.

"It's like playing with a big Rubik's cube," he said. "You know what the pieces are, but you don't necessarily know what sequence they need to be assembled in."

The plankowners

Members of the 116-person crew began showing up in April, coming in waves and getting trained up on the ship while it went through trials. In addition to time on Hamilton, Fears made sure that members of his crew visited existing NSCs — Bertholf, Waesche and Stratton, all based in Alameda, California, including some time underway.

The crew's members come from a wide variety of ratings, Fears said, but one has a slightly bigger role to play on the NSC.

"Because of the sophistication of the sensors and weapons systems, we probably have more [operations specialists] than we would have on other classes of Coast Guard cutter," he said.

The amount of computerization on the ship requires a lot of technical training for the crew, as well as a different approach to troubleshooting. Diagnosing a problem now starts with tracing a signal, or lack of signal, through the computers that control a partcular system, Fears said.

Hamilton will have contractors on hand to help the crew navigate those issues, but Fears doesn't want them to be a crutch.

"You've got to be able to encourage the sailors not to check out of the troubleshooting process, so to speak, and say, 'Oh the contractor'll take care of that,' " he said. "I still expect that when we're at sea and we have a casualty, we'll be able to fix it."

He likened the differences between an old school cutter, which remain a substantial part of the service's aging fleet, and an NSC to a 1965 Mustang and the 2014 model.

'They're both Mustangs, they both kind of look the same. You know, four tires, steering wheel," he said. "But they're completely different machines, with everything from power windows to computer-assisted brakes.

"That's the kind of technological leap we've taken by building these new ships."

Getting underway

Now that the Coast Guard has taken custody of Hamilton, the ship will spend the next month and a half in availability, Fears said. The crew will continue putting on the finishing touches before the Dec. 6 commissioning ceremony.

Fears said the culinary specialists would begin serving meals Sept. 17, and soon technicians will come on board to install systems like FleetBroadband for underway internet access.

The plan is to get out to sea for the first time in late October, then do a few trips in and out of port. They'll use that time to test out systems like the ship's 57mm deck gun, chaff launchers and Close-In Weapons System, as well as fine tune watch station competencies, Fears said.

"The goal would be to get to the point where everything is stowed properly and secured for sea," he said.

From there, it's on to the commissioning in Charleston, South Carolina. Ship sponsor Linda Kapral Papp, wife of recently retired former commandant Adm. Bob Papp, will be on hand to welcome Hamilton to the fleet.

James, the fifth NSC, is scheduled for delivery next summer. Munro will have its keel laid later this year, according to the Coast Guard. Kimball is in production, and the service has purchased long lead materials for Midgett, the final ship in the class.

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