Why the U.S. Navy is christening the USS Washington with cheap California bubbly

The USS Washington, a Virginia-class submarine, will be christened Saturday at Newport News, Va. with cheap California sparkling wine. Courtesy photo Chris Oxley/HII

When Elisabeth Mabus steps on the podium Saturday to christen the USS Washington, she’ll be armed with a basin of water from Puget Sound — and a bottle of cheap California sparkling wine.

The USS Washington is the latest Virginia-class nuclear-powered fast attack submarine to come off the production line at Newport News, Va.. The $1.2 billion boat has been under construction since 2011.

Organizers say they aren’t intentionally dissing Washington’s $5 billion wine industry.

With a 10-figure price tag, it’s safe to say the Navy and Newport News Shipbuilding don’t need to cut corners on the ceremonial aspects of launching the new boat.

But in this case, the cheap stuff is the right stuff.

It’s about optics, explained Christie Miller, the shipyard’s manager of media relations.

Cheap glass offers the best odds the bottle will break on contact and its contents will spray in a visually arresting fashion. That’s so important that the shipbuilder, having found just the right brand for the job some years ago, won’t reveal its name. It’s proprietary, Miller joked apologetically.

“This particular wine bottle breaks easiest,” she said.

Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, laid the keel for the USS Washington in November 2014. As its sponsor, Elisabeth Mabus — daughter of Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus — chalked her initials onto a metal plate, which was then welded onto the boat. Her father gave the keynote speech for the occasion.

The USS Washington is the 14th in the Virginia-class line. It pays homage to the state and to the 35 Medal of Honor recipients dating to the Civil War who called Washington home.

All but two vessels are named to honor states.

The 377-foot submarine is capable of underwater speeds of up to 25 knots and can remain submerged for up to three months. It carries a crew of 14 officers and 120 sailors.

The Virginia line was designed for anti-submarine warfare and is a smaller, less expensive successor to the Seawolf-class submarine.

It has a dozen missile launch tubes and four torpedo tubes. It can launch 16 Tomahawk cruise missiles in a single salvo.

WATCH ONLINE

The USS Washington christening ceremonies will be webcast live at 8 AM PST March 5 at http://www.washingtonchristening.com

Tri-City Herald article by BY WENDY CULVERWELL