A coach with Promise

Outside of the sailing community it comes as a surprise to many that Naval Academy midshipmen are still taught to sail. It stands to reason, however. Learning how to handle a sailing vessel can only increase one’s understanding of handling larger “gray hulls.” And, in fact, this is one of the primary goals of the Naval Academy Sailing Program.

In addition to operating many small craft, from Lasers to Navy-McCurdy 44s, the program operates several larger vessels. One of these includes the 60-foot sloop American Promise, originally commissioned by Dodge Morgan to circumnavigate, nonstop, in 1985-’86 (which he did successfully in 150 days), and generously donated by him to the U.S. Naval Academy.

In February of 2000 I was invited by the civilian director of Naval Academy Sailing, Ralph Naranjo, who would also be American Promise’s officer in charge (OIC) for this passage, to sail aboard her as a navigation instructor and “coach.” American Promise would be completing a round-trip passage from Annapolis to Bermuda as a participant in the 2000 Annapolis/Bermuda Ocean Race. It was an opportunity I accepted without hesitation. Sailing aboard a vessel as well known and stoutly constructed as Promise, as she’s known in the Academy fleet, seemed a once-in-a-lifetime offer. Not to mention, sailing with and teaching midshipmen seemed an equally rewarding and interesting endeavor.

As Promise’s navigation “coach” I was tasked with teaching inshore, offshore, and celestial, navigation to midshipmen. Having been taught, and self taught, a fair amount of navigation, I viewed this as my first opportunity to pass along all of the good habits I had learned over the years, while suppressing those that were less worthy of emulation.

Unlike preparing to be an ordinary navigator aboard, for instance, a Marion/Bermuda Race boat, all of my actions would be scrutinized by nine erudite students, as well as the OIC. I began preparing by refamiliarizing myself with basic navigation protocol, as well as celestial technique. The theory of celestial navigation, while interesting in a classroom environment, would be of little use during this particular passage. Presight calculation, planning, and meticulous log keeping would constitute my primary focus in teaching celestial navigation.Around Delmarva

In an attempt to familiarize the crew with the vessel, and each other, a circumnavigation of the Delmarva Peninsula was completed the week prior to the race. Many of the midshipmen, as well as myself, had not sailed aboard Promise. Getting to know her numerous electrical and mechanical systems, storage spaces, equipment, lines, winches, and gear became the primary mission. Before departing the Severn River, within sight of the Academy, we practiced man-overboard and recovery drills. Some of these were planned; others were impromptu tosses of a PFD over the stern rail, a test of the mids’ alertness. The passage was made without incident, with the exception of a cranky MSD and a few other minor mechanical malfunctions. I used the opportunity to establish a navigation routine, for myself as well as the mids. I attempted to instill in these young men and one woman one of the most important axioms of the prudent sailor, “a good navigator relies on all available sources of navigational information, never just one,” or words to that effect. Additionally, I attempted to inculcate my own personal motto for navigation, as well as other things boat related: “If it doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t.” Finally, I encouraged such cross-references as a depth sounding with plotted position, be it GPS, loran, land bearings, or a celestial line of position.

For this passage, Promise’s crew consisted of nine midshipmen (eight men and one woman), all “youngsters”-that’s sophomores in civilian speak – save one. This lone upperclassman, a “firstie,” or senior, was the senior ranking midshipman. The remainder of the crew, the officers, included the previously mentioned OIC, the assistant OIC (a lieutenant), an ensign as the boat’s skipper, and myself as navigation and engineering coach.

The mids were bright, eager, and quick learners. Sail handling, boat handling, on-board systems, from the generator and galley stove to GPS and radar, all came quickly and with minimal difficulty. One of the greatest system challenges proved to be a newly rebuilt, yet recalcitrant, head. If flushed too vigorously, it had an undesirable habit of spewing its contents onto the operator’s knees, shins and feet. I learned to be very respectful of its moodiness, and eventually struck an uneasy armistice by using it with great care.

The race began late on a Friday afternoon. This meant the transit down the Chesapeake Bay would be primarily at night. The 13-member crew slowly slipped into the watch routine of four on, four off during the day, and three on, three off at night.

Sailing a comparatively deep-draft vessel such as Promise (she draws 11 feet six inches) in the confines of the upper bay, at night, requires skill and attentiveness. Add to the mix a few dozen other race participants, not to mention the ordinary summertime traffic, and the result is a less than restful night for the OIC, the assistant OIC, and the navigator.

More than GPS

By Ocean Navigator