This is the formal recognition of the start of a ship's construction. In earlier times it was the "laying down" of the central or main timber making up the backbone of a vessel. Today, fabrication of the ship may begin months before and some of the ship's bottom may actually be joined. However, the keel laying ceremony (also referred to as the keel authentication ceremony) symbolically recognizes the joining of modular components and the ceremonial beginning of a ship.
During the keel laying ceremony, the ship's sponsor authenticates the keel by chalking her initials onto a metal plate. The initials are then welded onto a plate that is permanently affixed to the ship.
On May 16, 2015, with more than 500 guests looking into a submarine unit as the ceremony backdrop, Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, celebrated the keel laying of Virginia-class submarine Indiana (SSN 789)
The submarine’s sponsor is Diane Donald, wife of retired Adm. Kirkland Donald. As the keel authenticator, Donald chalked her initials on a metal plate, which were welded into the plate by Newport News welder Heather Johnson. The plate will be permanently affixed to the submarine, serving as a symbol of Donald’s enduring relationship with the shipbuilders, the submarine and the crew.
Ceremony participants included Vice Adm. Michael J. Connor, commander, Submarine Forces; Stephen Trautman, deputy director, Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program; Matt Mulherin, president, Newport News Shipbuilding; and Jeffrey S. Geiger, president, General Dynamics Electric Boat.
History was made at the Keel Laying of the USS Indiana. Heather Johnson is one of 56 female welders at Newport News Shipbuilding and the first female welder responsible for adding a Ship's Sponsor's initials onto a plate that will be a part of the boat forever. Additionally, USS Indiana's Sponsor Mrs. Diane Donald presented the unique challenge of chalking a cursive monogram — much different than the block style initials traditionally used for this purpose. Most welders in this position have not encountered a situation such as this!
"It was a little bit of a challenge because of the sponsor's style," Johnson said. "I had to really work on my timing to make sure it went smoothly and came out great." For more information about Heather Johnson and her groundbreaking, landmark weld, turn to page 3 of Yardlines.