Civilians get a taste of naval life at annual Fleet Week

USMC helicopter pilot 1st Lt. Eric Cragerud describes some features of the AH-1 Super Cobra during a tour onboard the USS America Monday, Oct. 13, 2014. Martin Bustamante / Xpress.

USMC helicopter pilot 1st Lt. Eric Cragerud describes some features of the AH-1 Super Cobra during a tour onboard the USS America Monday, Oct. 13, 2014. Martin Bustamante / Xpress.

A sea of tourists, locals and military personnel crowded The Embarcadero this weekend for Fleet Week, where ship tours and the Blue Angels air show welcomed more than 2,000 military personnel to the city.

With temperatures in the mid seventies, street performers and the occasional panhandler took advantage of the crowds, while vendors came out to sell everything from hotdogs to Blue Angels toy planes. But for many sailors, the biggest novelty was simply being on solid ground.

“When you’re at sea for six months, it’s a very hard life,” said Daniel Bernardi, interim dean of SF State’s College of Liberal and Creative Arts, who spent 20 years in the Navy and is still in the reserves. For Fleet Week “you get to go into a city where you get people who say thank you for your service. It’s especially important for young people.”

The purpose of Fleet Week, which has been held in various cities since 1935, is to boost morale for sailors who can spend as long as six months at sea.

According to U.S. Coast Guard Seaman Boston’s Mate Peter Wilson, who has been in the service for eight years, going on shore leave is not just a party for sailors. It is also a chance to do ordinary things like take care of medical or financial problems, buy presents for loved ones and access the Internet, all things that are hard or impossible to do while on a ship.

“So far, everything we’ve heard from our crew is incredibly positive,” said Lieutenant Nathan Jenkins. “People just offer to pay for drinks and meals. It’s incredibly good for our guys, morale-wise.”

Vistors line up for a security check to tour the USS America Monday, Oct. 13, 2014. Martin Bustamante / Xpress.

Vistors line up for a security check to tour the USS America Monday, Oct. 13, 2014. Martin Bustamante / Xpress.

When Navy ships dock in a city, sailors often get free or discounted admission to tourist attractions, free band concerts and other events that are held, and the public gets a glimpse of military life through events like ship tours and air shows.

“I just kind of grew up seeing it (Fleet Week) on the news,” said state construction inspector Irven Urbanski, who grew up in the Midwest and now lives near Gilroy. “I always wanted to see it, especially the Blue Angels.”

Urbanski, who had taken his ten-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter to tour the ships and see the air show, also just wanted to see San Francisco, which he considers to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

While tourists stood in line for the chance to board naval ships and cheered the high-flying stunts of the Blue Angels, sailors were encouraged to get out into the community.

“We’re encouraging people to get out in the city and be seen in their uniforms,” Jenkins said.

On Sunday, San Francisco hosted the Italian Heritage Parade, which has been a tradition since 1868 and was later made a part of the Fleet Week festivities, according to its website.

The parade, which marched along Fisherman’s Wharf before going into North Beach, included elaborate floats, military bands and city supervisors in classic cars. While there was a large Italian American influence, other communities in the city were represented, including Chinese Americans and the LGBT community. Music ranging from “God Bless America” to Journey blasted from the speakers of cars and motorcycles.

“I was very impressed,” said Bay Area native Gayle Farley, who watched the parade from her charter boat, the Silver Fox. “It brought the city together. You hear all the bad stuff about Fisherman’s Wharf, but this parade really gave a sense of what our country is about.”

Blake Randall (right) walks around a military helicopter during a tour aboard the USS America Monday, October 13, 2014. Martin Bustamante / Xpress.

Blake Randall (right) walks around a military helicopter during a tour aboard the USS America Monday, October 13, 2014. Martin Bustamante / Xpress.

The parade marked the second-to-last day of Fleet Week, before the ships departed on Monday October 13.

Military personnel were impressed by the number of tourists who turned out for the festivities, although some service members admitted that going ashore can be stressful.

“On ship, life is simple; you don’t have any real-world problems,” said Jason Firby, a combat systems engineer with the Canadian navy, who joined the military both for adventure and to pay for his education.

“It’s a whole different world being in the military,” said Wilson. “But we got a friendly reception which is the biggest part.”

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