To decommission a ship is to terminate her career in service in the armed forces of her nation. A somber occasion, it has little of the elaborate ceremony of ship commissioning, but carries significant tradition.
In it's modern use, the term paid off is used within some navies; a reference to the crews being given their pay when their service on the ship was complete.
In the United States Navy, various directives pertaining to these events are issued periodically, addressing questions concerning the proper wording of invitations and the agenda for the ceremony. In general, however, regulations do not predetermine the precise sequence of activities or establish inflexible protocol stipulations. Responsible officials are given a comfortable latitude to produce a ceremony distinctively Navy in heritage and significance, yet singular in its specific circumstances. The ceremony described here is not a rigid standard so much as a concept of what has been done in the past in order to provide a guide to what is traditional and appropriate for the situation.
A decommissioning is overseen by the Commander of the squadron or other unit to which the ship belongs, and is usually attended by other senior officers and government officials. After their arrival honors are rendered, the national anthem is played to commence the ceremony. The chaplain gives the invocation, then the Commanding Officer makes welcoming remarks and introduces the guest speaker.
After the guest speaker's comments, which usually include a résumé of the ship's history, the Commanding Officer calls "Attention to orders!" and begins the final sequence of orders that ship's crew will carry out by reading the decommissioning order. The Commanding Officer then orders, "Executive Officer, make preparations to decommission United States Ship Notaship." The Executive Officer responds, "Aye aye, Captain," then to the ship's officers, calls for "Reports!"
The heads of various departments make their reports, sometimes including archaisms that link their ship with the ships that have gone before them. For example, the Operations Officer may report, "All secure about the decks. The running lights have been extinguished, the cannonballs have been removed and the cannon has been spiked." To each report, the Executive Officer responds, "Very well." After the last report, the Executive Officer summarizes, "Captain, Notaship is ready for decommissioning."
The Commanding Officer then asks his/her superior officer for permission to decommission the ship. After granting it, the attending officers and guests are piped ashore with appropriate honors.
The Commanding Officer orders the Executive Officer to have the ship's company lay ashore. Once the crew is ashore, the Commanding Officer orders, "Strike eight bells," terminating the final watch, and "Haul down the colors." All present salute as the national ensign and jack are lowered. The commissioning pennant is hauled down last.
The last command is given by the Executive Officer: "Secure the watch." At that moment, the continuous cycle of watchstanding ends, and the ship is no longer in commission. The Commanding Officer reports this fact to his/her superior officer and relinquishes command. The chaplain may give a benediction, and the commanding officer then directs the Executive Officer to have the members of the crew carry out their respective orders.
The commanding officer is presented the last commissioning pennant to fly over the ship to keep as a memento, and the crew member with the most years of service keeps the last ensign flown by the ship.