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Seas get choppier as dozens of Navy warships steam away from Irene

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producer
The USS Wasp, an amphibious assault ship, will be safer from the hurricane at sea than in shore, the ship's navigator says.
The USS Wasp, an amphibious assault ship, will be safer from the hurricane at sea than in shore, the ship's navigator says.
  • "The basic idea is to stay out of the way of the heavy stuff," an officer says
  • The ship is bobbing about more than usual, and the sea is likely to get rougher
  • Crew members are worried about families they left behind

Aboard The Uss Wasp (CNN) -- Sunshine's given way to clouds, rain and choppy seas as a flotilla of 38 warships that normally would be docked at Norfolk Navy Base in Virginia makes a wide swing around Hurricane Irene.

The Wasp, a large amphibious assault ship built to put a major contingent of Marines on shore for battle, is -- as of 3 p.m. ET Friday -- more than 300 miles off the coast of Nags Head, North Carolina.

The ship, which is carrying nearly 1,500 sailors and Marines, is steaming to the southeast, destined for a holding point north-northeast of Bermuda, according to Capt. Brenda Holdener, the commanding officer.

The idea is for the Wasp and the other ships to avoid swells that could reach 8 to 10 feet high, Holdener said in an announcement to the crew.

"The basic idea is to stay out of the way of the heavy stuff." Lt. Commander Timothy Reiswig, ship's navigator, explained. "Ships are safer at sea than they would be in port during a hurricane or heavy weather."

Reiswig said the Navy doesn't want its ships to challenge Irene. "I don't expect to get any closer than 300 miles to the eye, that's a rough guess."

But even that far away, we'll feel the effects of Irene's power. Two sailors told CNN that Friday's rocking and bobbing on the Atlantic is very unusual for this 40,000 ton ship. Another sailor said she'd served eight months on the Wasp and had never felt it rock so much.

And Reiswig said it was likely to get worse. "We'll start to feel the effects of it later today or tomorrow. We'll start to see bigger swells."

While bigger swells might make for some spilled coffee or unsteady walks through the ship's passageways, they are not likely too cause serious problems here at sea.

Still, many sailors on board are worried about family and friends they left behind. When troops deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan, families worry from the relative safety of the home base. But in this case, the sailors and Marines are deploying to the safety of the open seas while their families stay behind to cope with a storm the likes of which the Norfolk area hasn't seen for years.

Lt. Cmdr. Jim Krohne told CNN that he and his wife discussed for two days whether she should stay at their home, 10 miles from the Virginia coast, or take their children and head west to stay with family. She eventually packed the car and drove to Tennessee.

Reiswig has a similar situation. "That's my bigger concern right now, is I've got a wife back there who's going to have to deal with this without me. Out here we're avoiding the storm and it's not going to be that bad."

Things could a little more difficult if the Wasp is ordered to steam toward the U.S. coast to help civilians affected by the storm.

Holdener said the crew is already "preparing if the Navy is asked" to support civilian authorities with emergency response and recovery. In the meantime, the mission is to keep her ship and its crew safe.

But if you thought that a ship this big, 844 feet long, headed into hurricane-churned ocean waters would be in the hands of grizzled sea dogs, you need to meet Seaman Xin Chen.

Chen is 23 years old, with eight months in the Navy and three months assigned to the Wasp. She's a native of Shanghai, China.

When CNN was on the bridge, she was at the helm, her hands on a plain stainless steel wheel steering this grey steel behemoth through the choppy seas of the North Atlantic.

But Seamen Chen didn't really know what the water looked like, because while she's very professional and listens closely to the people giving her orders, she's not tall enough to see over the large bank of equipment in front of her and out the bridge's windows to see the ocean.