Sail Ho, or Sail No? The Debate on Sail Training at the Maritime Academies

Navy 44 sailing naval academy Lloyd Phoenix
Navy 44’s round the leeward mark during the 2005 Lloyd Phoenix Regatta in Annapolis, MD

By Art Pine, images by Robert Almeida

Step aboard a naval vessel these days, and you quickly see a stunning breadth of high-technology equipment. Navigating? Today’s ship is the province of GPS receivers and computers.  Posting a lookout? That task is handled largely by satellites and sophisticated radar. The helm is highly automated. And nuclear power is the propulsion of choice.

So why bother training today’s officer candidates on sailing vessels?

The debate has been going on for decades, intensifying with each advance in shipboard technology. In the latest go-around, Vice Admiral Jeffrey L. Fowler, the U.S. Naval Academy’s superintendent from mid-2007 to August 2010, raised hackles by trimming the sail-training program there, reducing opportunities for midshipmen to take part.

Fowler argued that, especially at a time when the nation is at war, the Academy couldn’t afford to let midshipmen spend too much time on sail-training, which he viewed as little more than a sport. He said mids would be better served by doing all their training on board gray-hull warships—sometimes referred to as “grayships”—where they most likely would be assigned after they were commissioned.

But proponents of sail-training contend that, anachronistic as it may seem, providing midshipmen, Coast Guard cadets, and maritime academy students with intensive training on sailboats offers unparalleled opportunities for teaching seamanship, shiphandling, navigation, and leadership skills—at a depth that they’re unlikely to get on board warships.

Navy Sailing Bowman
Former Navy Midshipman Ryan Kimmel directs maneuvers from the bow

‘A Vital Building-Block’

“It’s a vital building-block, not only for seamanship and navigation, but for leadership development and learning how to make decisions under stress,” said Rear Admiral Garland P. Wright Jr., who was co-captain of the Academy’s intercollegiate champion sailing team in 1977 and now is deputy director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

“The conditions and situations that you face under sail can’t be replicated either in a classroom or aboard a gray-ship,” he continued. “You assume an awful lot of responsibility when you take a sailboat offshore, and you face a lot of challenges. It’s not just about seamanship—it’s risk-management and decision-making as well.”

To be sure, no one is suggesting that sea-officer academies provide all of their underway training on sailing vessels. Even the most hard-bitten advocates concede that summer cruises on board gray-hull ships are essential. So is the training provided aboard yard patrol boats (YPs) that the Academy uses for teaching shiphandling.

But neither vessel offers what sail training provides. The month that third-class mids spend on big ships of the Fleet amounts largely to an orientation cruise, to acquaint them with shipboard routine and let them experience what enlisted personnel do. On their first-class cruise, they get limited training as division officers and on the bridge.

During the year, the mids train on board YPs — stubby, 108-foot, twin screw diesel craft – which give them an opportunity to practice docking and shiphandling on the Severn River. They also take longer trips in summer to nearby seaports such as New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. There’s no doubt that the time is well spent.

Out of Their Element(s)

Yet on both types of vessels, the crew is largely protected from the elements. Likewise, the movements of those vessels are far less affected by the wind, current, and sea-state than sailboats are. Engines keep the gray-hull going, no matter what the weather or seas. And plenty of other people are on board to help set a course and manage the crew.

By contrast, the 16 specially built 44-foot sloops (called 44s) that make up the heart of the Naval Academy’s sail-training program are totally dependent on wind, waves, and currents; the midshipmen who act as skipper and crew members do everything themselves. They must cope swiftly with emergencies.

Proponents say that makes mids, who have had extensive experience on board sailboats, decidedly more sensitive to how wind, waves, and currents affect a vessel; more aware of how vital it is for crew members to work together; and more skilled in handling unexpected challenges, from a sudden hardware failure to a blown-out sail or backstay.

“Things happen on a sailboat much faster than on a grayship,” said Gary Jobson, a New York Maritime Academy graduate and former naval officer who is now an ESPN commentator and president of U.S. Sailing. “Everybody has a job, and every action you take makes a difference. You need to make split-second decisions, and work as a team.”

Mids also gain the kind of direct experience in voyage planning, vessel-preparation, watch-scheduling, personal responsibility, team-building, leadership, and decision-making while under stress that they don’t ordinarily encounter during their training cruises on board Fleet ships—or even as junior officers once they’ve been commissioned.

Stress That Can’t Be Simulated

Laser crash leeward mark Dr. Crash
Mayhem ensues at the leeward mark during a particularly windy Navy Fall 2005 regatta

“Sail-training puts people under a type of stress that you just don’t get from a grayship or simulator,” said Captain Kathryn Hire, a former Naval Academy sailboat skipper who rose from Navy flight officer to NASA astronaut.  “This kind of thing is really important for a naval leader.”

That, in turn, builds confidence among the mids who have taken part in the sail-training program, making them better leaders when they’re on the 44s and more effective officers after they’re commissioned, Wright said. “Confidence builds optimism, optimism builds resiliency, and resilience builds success.”

Moreover, sea officers who have had sail-training as midshipmen or cadets say the lessons they learned on a sailboat invariably made them better shiphandlers on warships or merchantmen after they’re out in a fleet, and their skills stay with them throughout their naval or merchant marine careers.

Jobson recalls his early days on a destroyer, when the captain called all the junior officers to the bridge for docking practice in the face of strong winds and currents. While others blundered, those who had had sail training brought the ship in perfectly on the first try. “Coping with wind and currents was second nature,” Jobson said.

Navy fall Vanguard 420 sailboat racing dinghy dinghies
Intercollegiate sailors race to the reach mark in Vanguard 420s on the Severn River in Annapolis

Hire says sailors make better aviators as well, because they’ve already acquired a keen appreciation of the effects that relative motion and constantly shifting winds can have on a vessel before they begin flight training. And they find that that quickly translates into operating aircraft, too.

“They just have a natural feel for the wind—that it’s not always steady— and a better appreciation of relative motion, and  they’re a lot more alert to both of those than aviators who haven’t had sail-training,” Hire said.

And because sails are built like airfoils, sailors also develop a better feel for the dynamics of wings and ailerons.

Sailing at Other Academies

USCG Cutter Eagle
Coast Guard cadents learn the fine points of sail on board the 75-year old cutter Eagle, a 295-foot barque that prior to World War II, was a sail-trainer for the German navy. The square-rigger regularly travels U.S. coastal waters and annually visits several foreign ports. Here, her crew takes in sails in the waters off Corpus Christi, Texas, in 2010. (USCG Photo)

The Navy isn’t the only service that uses sailing vessels to help train its officer-candidates. The U.S. Coast Guard Academy sends all its swabs (plebes) on a weeklong training cruise on board the USCGC Eagle (WIX-327), a 295-foot, 75-year-old, square-rigged barque that regularly plies coastal waters and visits several foreign ports each year.

Every voyage includes 120 underclass cadets, who serve in enlisted billets, and 21 upperclassmen in officers’ slots. Coast Guard Captain Eric Jones, the Eagle’s skipper, points out that cadets may not fill officer roles on a standard ship because they aren’t commissioned, but they are authorized to do so on board the square-rigger.

He calls the Eagle the “ultimate leadership laboratory.”

The Coast Guard Academy also is acquiring eight new sloops, similar to the Navy 44s, to triple the size of a 12-day coastal sail-training program that offers cadets the same goals and training regimen as the Naval Academy’s 44s. The acquisition is being financed by donations from alums. The school will retain four Luder 44s it has been using for years.

At the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at King’s Point, New York, and several state maritime academies as well, sailing vessels are part of the training. Although those programs generally are less ambitious than those of their Navy and Coast Guard counterparts, students nonetheless are exposed to some basic sail-training on board small recreational boats.

The Merchant Marine Academy requires all plebes to undergo sail-training and strongly encourages them to take part in its offshore sailing team and intercollegiate dinghy team. It also maintains a 110-foot schooner and a fleet of six 26-foot sloops and 60 dinghies, along with a variety of sailboats donated by private citizens.

Tall Ships America, formerly the American Sail Training Association, counts at least 31 large sail-training ships at sea-service academies in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Russia, Brazil, Argentina, Poland, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, and other countries. And that doesn’t count the smaller vessels such as pleasure-boat-sized sloops and dinghies.

“Sail-training is an irreplaceable element in training mariners of any sort,” said retired Navy Rear Admiral Philip H. Greene, the Merchant Marine Academy’s superintendent. USMMA mids spend months on board large cargo vessels as well, but “technology can’t replace those skills” they “learn and hone” in sail-training.

Naval Academy Inventory

The 44s aren’t the only vessels in the Naval Academy’s inventory. New mids receive 15 hours of sail-training during their plebe summer on board one of the 30 smaller (26-foot) sailboats the Academy maintains. There also is a fleet of 115 dinghies for midshipmen to use for practice and to race in intercollegiate competition.

The school additionally maintains an assortment of seven donated boats, from 24 feet to 52 feet long, to take part in races offshore and on Chesapeake Bay; larger boats are used for transatlantic voyages. The Academy has a varsity offshore sailing team that competes in a wide variety of contests. In all cases, the boats are manned entirely by mids.

But the Navy 44s are where the real action is in Academy sailing. Spartan by any standard, the 44s are more complex, sturdier, and more difficult to sail than a comparably sized recreational boat, and everyone on the ten-member crew is needed to make things go smoothly.

Mids get more hands-on experience on board 44s than they do on YPs. The crews on 44s are split into two five-person watches, which rotate in handling all the tasks of running a ship. By contrast, the YPs maintain ten-person watches all the time, so individual mids don’t get as much on-the-job training in each billet.

The mids maintain a Navy-style command structure, with a captain, executive officer, navigator, assistant navigator, engineer, first lieutenant, two watch captains, bowman, and (in case of racing) a tactician. Mids stand regular watches and rotate among the jobs. They’re expected to acquire the necessary skills in each billet before they can take command.

Hands-on Learning at Sea

USCG Cutter Eagle sail training
Coast Guard Academy cadets set sails high in the rigging of the Eagle in the North Sea during this year’s summer training cruise, which marked the vessel’s 75th anniversary. Her skipper, Captain Eric Jones, says that because of the opportunities the Eagle affords cadets, she is the “ultimate leadership laboratory.” (USCG Photo)

In the summer, midshipmen crews take the 44s on three-week deployments offshore—planning the voyage, laying out the courses, and dealing with any emergencies that may arise. An active-duty officer or civilian instructor serves as a safety officer, but leaves the running of the boat entirely to the mids.

“Our academic courses provide the foundation, but sail-training puts meat on the bones,” said Navy Captain Stan Keeve, the Academy’s director of professional development. “It does a fantastic job of giving midshipmen a chance to test not only their skills but the character of their leadership. You become a more competent maritime officer.”

Newly commissioned Marine Corps Second Lieutenant Michael Smithson can attest to the challenges mids learn to overcome in sail-training. On an offshore cruise in 2010 his Navy 44 unexpectedly lost steering in six-foot seas and heavy winds, forcing him to rig emergency steering, arrange for emergency repairs, and navigate through shoal waters.

“There’s nothing contrived about being on a sailboat 70 miles off the New Jersey coast and being responsible for the lives of eight other crew members,” recalled Smithson.  “Mother Nature is a powerful thing, and a 44-foot sailboat out in the Atlantic Ocean is awfully small. Leadership opportunities like that are hard to come by.”

Sail-training isn’t cheap. The Naval Academy’s sail-training program costs the service about $204,000 a year for materials. It uses about two dozen military and paid civilian personnel to operate the program and perform routine maintenance. And it uses 50 civilian volunteers to serve as coaches and safety officers for training cruises and races.

The Eagle costs the Coast Guard $800,000 a year for operations and maintenance, plus about $1.5 million for overhauls—usually every three to five years—performed at the U.S. Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore.  Designing and building the eight new 44s cost $6.4 million—half donated by the Coast Guard Foundation.

Highs and Lows

Navy Sailing Colgate 26 sail training offshore sailing annapolis
The Navy 26s, designed by Steve Colgate, are an integral part of sail training for the US Naval Academy Offshore Sailing Team

Sail-training at the Naval Academy has had its ups and downs over the years.  Begun in 1846, a year after the Academy was founded, sail-training was abandoned in 1909, after the service finished converting its fleet to steam propulsion—and essentially ignored for 27 years.

Revived in 1936, it gradually grew to include the Navy 44s and a flotilla of smaller sailboats donated by private citizens. The Academy just finished replacing its fleet of 44s with a new Mark II version that, while similar in appearance, incorporates a wholly new hull design and deck plan. Two new Mark IIs for racing are due in next summer.

The program also has depended on who was superintendent. Admiral Charles R. Larson, who held the post from mid-1994 to mid-1998, and Vice Admiral Rodney P. Rempt, who served from mid-2003 to mid-2007, were staunch advocates of sail-training, and the program expanded dramatically.

Ralph Naranjo, a nationally known sailing authority and author who held the Vanderstar Chair at the Naval Academy during that time and played a key role in the  program, says the number of summertime missions on board 44s soared to 105 during Rempt’s years, from 48 before.

“The growth of the program [under Rempt] was meteoric,” Naranjo recalled.

But Vice Admiral Richard J. Naughton, superintendent from mid-2002 to mid-2003, and Fowler clearly had their doubts about it. Under Fowler, opportunities for sail-training were cut sharply; missions on Navy 44s fell to an average of 28 during his term.

Under the current superintendent, Vice Admiral Michael H. Miller, the number of sail-training missions on the 44s has risen to 65. And Miller has strengthened the link between the sailing program and the Academy’s professional development program, employing sail-training missions to help teach subjects such as leadership, ethics, and law.

Scuttling the Sailing Association?

Meanwhile, separately, the Navy has ended its support for the U.S. Naval Sailing Association (USNSA), which occupied offices at the U.S. Naval Station across the Severn River and set rules and professional standards for sail-training at Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps units and for sailing clubs at armed forces marinas on both coasts.

The service also formally abolished its office of Director of Navy Sailing, ousted the USNSA from its offices, and cut financial aid for its program. Sailing association officials are pondering whether to continue past the end of this year or disband—a step advocates say would be a service-wide setback for sailing.

Retired Navy Captain Gerard M. Farrell, who just stepped down as chairman of the U.S. Naval Sailing Foundation, said the group is “trying to figure out if it has a role to fill. The Navy appears to be backing away from any formal recognition [of USNSA] in officer training. If that’s the case, then the association seems not to be required anymore.”

Jobson, a former member of the committee that advises the Naval Academy on sail-training, said the “roller-coaster” expansion and contraction of the program is only hurting the Academy. He said the Navy needs to decide what kind of sail-training the Academy should provide and stick to it, no matter who is superintendent.

“It’s important that the Academy institutionalize its sail-training, so we don’t change our tactics with each administration.”

Mr. Pine, a former naval officer, is a veteran journalist who has worked as a Washington correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. 

Reprinted from Proceedings with permission; Copyright © 2011 U.S. Naval Institute/www.usni.org