The city's downtown waterfront gained an impressive new addition Friday when a U.S. Navy warship arrived in town.
The USS Independence will be docked at the Port of St. Petersburg through the Labor Day weekend. It's the first warship to visit here in several decades.
City officials and community leaders gathered Friday to welcome the hulking gray vessel, which is 419 feet long. Mayor Bill Foster described it as a "beautiful, odd-shaped ship." Behind him, high school students from Admiral Farragut Academy acted as the day's honor and color guards.
"We hope you come back for many more (visits)," said U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, who arranged the stop for the ship, which is on its way to its home port in San Diego. "God bless this ship and bless all the crew members on this ship."
Foster invited the ship's crew to Tropicana Field for a Rays game this weekend.
"My city, our city, is your city," he said. "My city is open to you."
Officials set aside about 1,200 tickets for the public to tour the ship this weekend; those sold out within an hour. The public's excitement about the Independence is apparently shared by the crew, who ushered officials and media around on Friday.
"It's not a traditional ship, and I love that," said Lt. Timothy Brock, who, as the main propulsion assistant, gets to drive the massive ship. "It's the newest thing the Navy has going, and I wanted to be part of it."
Nearly everything about the ship is different from Navy ships of the past, Brock said.
For starters, the Independence is one of the first in a new class of littoral combat ships. It's designed to navigate in shallow areas near coasts. It can be outfitted for several different missions, including mine, submarine or surface warfare.
And unlike huge naval carriers, it is manned with far fewer people — a core crew of about 40 instead of several hundred.
Even driving the ship is a different experience, Brock said.
On a regular ship, he said, it takes at least three people to steer in a different direction. On the Independence, there's a tool that combines steering and thrust and can be controlled by just one person.
"On this ship, if I want to go right, I go right," Brock said. "That's my favorite part of the ship — I get to drive."
To be sure, other parts of the ship are pretty cool, too.
Its walls and ceilings are coated with an aluminum-foil-looking material that's fire resistant. A 57 mm gun is mounted at its front. A single SH-60 Bravo helicopter sat atop the ship Friday, though officials said a second one would fit easily.
The back of the ship is currently equipped with a big, black submarine-type vessel called a Remote Multi-Mission Minehunting Vehicle. Crew members control the unmanned vessel from a room deep inside the ship. If they come across what they think is a mine, they can attach a camera that's powerful enough to capture an image of a quarter on the sea floor.
The Navy plans to have more ships like Independence built in the future. They'll cost about $440 million each, officials said.
U.S. Navy chief select personnel specialist Kervon Grant got a glimpse of the Independence on Friday. The 29-year-old St. Petersburg native, currently stationed in Puerto Rico, joined the Navy right after graduating from Osceola High School in 1999.
He's is currently in St. Petersburg temporarily for leadership training as part of a promotion. He said he has served on several other ships, but none like the one now docked in his hometown.
"This is a new class of ship," he said. "It seemed so futuristic. It's an honor."