In this file photo, USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) operates in the Philippine Sea. (U.S. Navy/MCSN Dylan Lavin)

YOKOSUKA, Japan - Capt. Timothy Waits relieved Capt. Craig Sicola as commanding officer of U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) in a small, socially distanced ceremony aboard the ship, Feb. 15.

Sicola has served as commanding officer of Blue Ridge since Dec. 12, 2019. Under his leadership, he led the oldest operational warship through more than 25,000 nautical miles of ocean and the longest continuous underway period in her 50 years of service during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.

During the unique change of command ceremony, Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet Vice Adm. Bill Merz recognized the efforts that Sicola brought to the team.

"I truly believe you were the right leader at the right time, and we were very fortunate to have you in command of Blue Ridge," said Merz. "Like the rest of the Fleet, we have been blessed with tremendous leadership in a year that absolutely needed it."

While in command, Sicola planned and executed the first dual embarkation of U.S. 7th Fleet and III Marine Expeditionary Force staffs in more than five years in support of Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet and Indo-Pacific Command's strategic vision. Sicola's next assignment is as commanding officer of USS Nimitz (CVN 68) at Naval Base Bremerton, Washington.

"Thank you for coming together as a family and enduring one of the hardest years in our lives," said Sicola to his crew. "We have taken care of each other, and for that I am extremely thankful to each of you."

"I have learned so much from the incredible Sailors on this historic ship during my tour," said Sicola. "Too many things to mention, but I want to thank each member of the crew for taking the time to train me and being experts at their jobs."

Merz welcomed the oncoming commanding officer, Capt. Tim Waits during the ceremony. "This ship will endear you on its own," he said, adding "if you use the tried and true adage that if you treat each command like your last command, you'll have the right mentality for this ship."

Waits' most recent assignment was USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) at Naval Base Norfolk, Virginia, where he served as the ship's executive officer. This is Waits' first tour as a commanding officer.

"It is an honor and privilege to be a part of this crew and the 7th Fleet team," said Waits. "This ship and its crew have a tremendous responsibility as the 7th Fleet flagship and it is humbling and motivating to take on the challenges ahead."

Waits' other sea duties include USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72), and USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) while serving with Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 25. He also completed multiple deployments aboard USS George Washington (CVN 73) while serving as a department head with VFA 192 in Atsugi, Japan.

Wait's shore duties include the Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 31 in China Lake, California. He also served as the executive officer of VFA 86, and as the F-18E/F requirements officer for the Navy's Director of Air Warfare (OPNAV N98).

"Blue Ridge is very fortunate to have such a smart and talented leader as Capt. Waits," said Sicola. "I am positive that the ship will continue to excel and reach a new level of excellence under his command."

Capt. Tim Waits is the 32nd commanding officer of USS Blue Ridge. He is a native of Anniston, Alabama and a graduate of the University of Alabama with degrees in aerospace engineering.

"My goal is to work hard to ensure the Blue Ridge team remains ready at all times," said Waits. "I also want to do everything I can to ensure the men and women of Blue Ridge are able to achieve their professional and personal goals, and to be the best team and the best Sailors they can be."

Blue Ridge is the oldest operational ship in the Navy, and as 7th Fleet command ship, is responsible for patrolling and fostering relationships within the Indo-Pacific region.

As the U.S. Navy's largest forward-deployed fleet, 7th Fleet employs 50 to 70 ships and submarines across the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans. U.S. 7th Fleet routinely operates and interacts with 35 maritime nations while conducting missions to preserve and protect a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Capt. Craig Sicola and Capt. Tim Waits exchange salutes during the USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) change of command ceremony. (U.S. Navy/MC3 Matt Hall)