A year before the crew of the fictional USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) made its final voyage in the film Star Trek: The Search for Spock, the very real USS Enterprise (CVN-65) was in the news for reasons the United States Navy would like to forget. The aircraft carrier not so boldly ran aground in San Francisco harbor after sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge when it was returning from an eight-month deployment in the Western Pacific.
No one was hurt in the incident, which occurred after the helmsman of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier – the world’s first – apparently lost control of the ship when one of the two starboard propellers stopped churning. That caused the two port-side propellers to exert more lateral force than the rudder could overcome. The massive vessel then went aground.
The ship struck the sandbar reportedly in full sight of the families and friends of the 4,500-man crew. The “Big E” was just 3,000 feet from the pier, and the carrier was seen listing about 10 degrees to the port side.
Efforts were made to help dislodge the vessel, and at one point the ship’s crew members were even ordered to gather in one part of the ship, in hopes that their weight would tilt the carrier enough to make it slide off the mud or at least would correct the listing.
That didn’t work out, however. A number of tugs then struggled to keep the ship from listing further or grinding farther into the bay bottom.
As The Washington Post reported on April 29, 1983, “Tugs wrestled the 90,000-ton ship off a sand bar, with a heavy assist from a rising tide, after a five-hour struggle during which hundreds of wives, children and sweethearts of the Enterprise’s crew could only stand by and wait.”
According to a news update from UPI following the incident, USS Enterprise was being piloted by Capt. J. Pringle, a civilian ship master who specialized in docking Navy ships, but the command was turned over to a Navy pilot before the Enterprise went aground. Although Pringle and Rear Adm. Edwin F. Kohn Jr. were aboard, the ultimate responsibility for the ship’s handling was Capt. R.J. Kelly, then commanding officer of the USS Enterprise
In the news conference that followed, Kelly stated, “I am the captain and I was in control. I am totally responsible for what happened,” and later added, “Naturally, it’s embarrassing.”
The grounding didn’t ground or scuttle Kelly’s career, however – as the case normally would be. He had already been selected for promotion to commodore and eventually became a four-star admiral and Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
This was not the first time that a U.S. warship had run aground – and the USS Missouri (BB-63) had become stuck on a mud bank in Chesapeake Bay on January 17, 1950. For three days, tugs couldn’t budge the World War II Iowa-class battleship, and there were reports that the U.S. Air Force mocked the Navy by dropping canoe paddles from a transport plane. After almost two weeks, the high tide finally freed the battle wagon.
In an almost ironic twist, George Takai, who played Mr. Sulu in the Star Trek TV and movie series, arrived aboard the aircraft carrier earlier that day by helicopter. He was reported to quip, “Our vessel is the starship Enterprise and this is the USS Enterprise. We’ve got a new drink – Enterprise on the Rocks.”
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A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.