From his blue upholstered swivel chair on the bridge 90 feet above the flight deck, Capt. Kendall Card knows the signs of fatigue among the 5,655 men and women under his command.
The sailors who scurry around the deck seem a little haggard. On Sunday, the wing of one combat plane moving around on the deck brushed the wing of another -- only enough to scrape paint. But a "crunch" is a rare event on the Lincoln. Pleas by the American Red Cross for emergency leave for sailors, to deal with family deaths or illness, are running about 10 percent above normal.
The Lincoln has been at sea for 238 days, heading toward the record books. "We're making history," said Electrician's Mate 2nd Class Creighton Litt with a wan smile.
The nuclear-powered vessel, which has been launching warplanes to enforce the "no-fly" zone over southern Iraq as part of Operation Southern Watch, was supposed to return home to Everett, Wash., in January, when it was ordered to remain in the Persian Gulf as tensions with Iraq increased.
Matthew Perry, a 25-year-old information systems technician from Memphis, was forced to postpone his February wedding to his high school sweetheart, Melissa Haynes. "There's nothing we could do -- it's out of our hands," Perry said. "We haven't rescheduled because we don't know when I'm leaving here."
The Lincoln is one of five U.S. carriers now in the region. It shares satellite capacity with the USS Constellation and the USS Kitty Hawk, which slows Internet traffic on the ships.
"The gulf is getting crowded," said Lt. Shannon Callahan, an electronic communications maintenance officer who flies in EA-6B Prowlers, jets that jam enemy radar.
These days, the ship is in a holding pattern, still operating some missions over the no-fly zone but mostly waiting.
"It's very difficult to get up to the front lines and you see all the news and the tensions escalate and de-escalate," said Card, a tanned, 47-year-old Texan who acts as father figure on a ship where the average age is 19. "It's very hard on the crew. They've lost a little bit of their edge and need to get it back."
Card's solution this week was to cancel flights for two days to allow the sailors and aviators a little onboard recreation. On Monday, sailors played basketball on two portable courts as the bass lines of a Jennifer Lopez recording bounced against the steel shell.
A handful of technicians and flight directors whacked golf balls off the fan tail, the overhang at the stern. Rear Adm. John M. Kelly, who commands the battle group of vessels around the Lincoln, jogged on the steel flight deck, charting a lopsided course around idled F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornets.
A "steel beach" barbecue was promised for Tuesday, when officers and enlisted personnel could have the unusual opportunity to dine together on hot dogs and hamburgers grilled on a flight deck that covers 41/2 acres.
On the 11 levels below the flight deck, sailors check out John Wayne war movies and the "Star Wars" video games from the Morale, Welfare and Recreation Department. They play electronic Yahtzee and old-fashioned cards. Others sweat and huff in kickboxing or step aerobics classes in the cavernous hangar.
After six months at sea, many sailors undergo a subtle change, said Lt. Paul Dozen, 40, a weapons assembly officer. "You're a different guy," Dozen said. "You go home, you can't find your spoon because your wife moved the silverware. . . . When I get leave and go to a hotel, a real bed feels too soft. I miss my rack [sea bunk], I really do."
Sailors and fliers on the Lincoln say they're ready for conflict and that war would erase the monotony. But they're also ready to sail home. What they really want is resolution.