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September 2004 Join Now

Volunteers Seek New Naval Academy Sailing Program Role

Sea Power Correspondent

In the middle of his most recent cruise to Bermuda, newly commissioned Ensign Travis Wood, of the U.S. Naval Academy class of 2004, experienced the lowest — and highest — points in his time at sea.

The Patriot, a 48-foot sailboat, was sailing from Annapolis, Md., to St. George’s, Bermuda, in the 2004 Bermuda Ocean Race when the wind died. The boat already was having engine trouble and the crew was running low on fresh water.

Wood, assistant officer in charge aboard the Patriot under a volunteer civilian skipper, smiles wryly as he recalls the grim reality that they and their crew of 10 confronted after almost two days of little or no wind.

“Our navigator, who’s a guy who’d never been out on the ocean before, comes up after he’s just taken a position fix and looks at everybody and he goes, ‘This is the exact same spot we were in 12 hours ago.’” Wood said. “We’d just been actually sailing back and forth.”

After that, he said, the crew, nine of whom were new to offshore sailing, “kind of buckled down and used every little bit of wind that came across our boat to move us toward Bermuda. I think everybody finally realized at that point, ‘If we don’t sail this boat, we’re not going to get there.’”

The Patriot ended up winning its division, although it took seven days to make the crossing. And the crew came away with valuable lessons about the potential perils of the sea.

All Naval Academy graduates should have such a hard time, said Cmdr. Gerard Vandenberg, deputy director of the academy’s sailing program. Vandenberg, whose corner office at the Robert Crown Sailing Center overlooks the Severn River, is charged with an ambitious effort by Academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt to make sure all midshipmen see sea duty aboard a sailboat.

In the process of this “renaissance in Navy sailing,” the academy is strengthening its control over a program that has seen changing leadership and shifting direction over the years. Some civilian volunteers, many of them Navy League members, who have been actively involved in the program as skippers for midshipmen cruises are wondering how their roles will change.

Asked what role the Navy League can continue to play, James E.M. Coleman, former president of the Annapolis Council and now Mid-Atlantic Region president, said, “Frankly, I don’t know, except to be aware of it, to provide support.

“I understand that the superintendent wants to take back some of the responsibilities” previous superintendents had delegated to volunteers, Coleman said. The midshipmen “are still learning responsibility. And sometimes they let their enthusiasm run away with them. That’s why we were on there,” as “safety officers” for offshore cruises.

Coleman said he accepted Rempt’s new emphasis on the sailing program. “Some of us old guys don’t like change,” he said. “I’m not one of those guys. Change happens.”

To power this change, using mostly appropriated funds, the Naval Academy is in the process of upgrading its fleet of Navy 44s, the 44-foot offshore cruising/racing vessels authorized by the Congress for training midshipmen. The plan is to buy enough 44s, 25 to 30, over five years to replace the ones the academy has had for up to 20 years.

Vandenberg, a member of the academy class of 1984, and the program’s director, Capt. Brian McCormack, class of 1978, are gung-ho to take midshipmen and test their mettle under the unrelenting pressures of Mother Nature.

The goal is “to develop deck watch officer-type skills in the open cockpit … in all weather, inshore and offshore. We don’t cancel sorties because there’s a gale blowing offshore,” Vandenberg said. “We shake ’em, we bake ’em, we see what they’re made of.”

Rempt’s long-term goal “is to have every midshipman go out on a CSNTS [Command Seamanship and Navigation Training Squadron] cruise in his third-class summer,” McCormack said. “Last year, for example, in the CSNTS program, we sailed 42 sorties. This summer we’re executing about 62.”

Next summer, Vandenberg said, “We’re probably going to take every midshipman to sea.”

That’s fine with Third Classman Zebulon Barth, 20, of Gage, Okla., who this summer is undergoing the three-week training regimen of the CSNTS: a week of basic sailing instruction with practice in the Severn and the Chesapeake Bay, followed by a cruise to Newport, R.I., and back.

“The basics that we’re learning is that you can’t fully rely on technology. You still have to go with Mother Nature,” Barth said. “Everybody has to put forth all their effort to make things happen. If you don’t learn that right off the bat, you’re going to be kind of up the creek without a paddle.”

Ensign Cindy Sedlak, 24, also of the class of 2004, has seen firsthand how midshipmen can cope with the rigors of sailing even on their first ocean cruise. Serving recently as assistant officer in charge aboard a Navy 44 to Newport and Cape Cod, Sedlak said she was impressed to see how, at 2 or 3 in the morning under a thick fog off Block Island, R.I., her crew needed no prompting to send fog signals correctly or make the necessary security calls on the radio.

“I felt kind of safe,” she said.

Academy officials view Rempt’s renewed emphasis on sailing as a return to the program’s military roots.

In administrative terms, that means assuming full responsibility for staffing and funding, with 14 people assigned to the program, as opposed to relying on help from the Naval Academy Sailing Squadron, a private organization with both academy and non-academy members. The sailing program’s budget already has tripled from last year, said McCormack, who also is commander of Naval Station Annapolis, and will require still more money next year.

It also means that volunteers such as Navy Leaguers who want to participate in the midshipmen’s training as sailors are more likely to find themselves left at the dock. People who served as officers in charge or assistant officers in charge on offshore cruises will be needed for land-based support such as race and social committees, McCormack said.

“Adm. Rempt’s goal is, he wants to remove as many of those folks from the boats and give more midshipmen more leadership opportunities … to get them ready to serve in the fleet.”

Naval Academy officials also are hoping that increased emphasis on the sailing program will pay dividends for the academy’s competitive sailing teams and, in turn, the academy’s status. “Visibility increases due to success,” McCormack noted. “We saw that with the football team last year.”

McCormack acknowledged that civilian supporters may feel shortchanged by their new onshore roles. But, he said, “We still see a real important role for all the civilian members of our program.”

Just what that role will be remains to be seen, said Allen Faurot, a Navy Leaguer from Annapolis and, until recently, vice commodore of the Naval Academy Sailing Squadron, made up primarily of sailors who just want to be involved in the program.

Historically, the squadron has had close ties with the academy, with the sailing program’s director serving as commodore. In a reorganization that took effect Aug. 1, the academy’s influence expanded significantly when the vice commodore became the deputy director of the sailing program and all officers ceased to be elected. Instead, they will be appointed by the commodore.

“The role of the volunteers, in a way, is diminishing,” said Faurot, who supports the superintendent’s new goals for the program, while questioning how the academy will be able to achieve them without the help of older, more experienced sailors. “The vision is a very good vision,” he said. “It just hasn’t been sorted out yet.”

Retired Rear Adm. Robert W. McNitt, agreed that “the direction is correct. The more midshipmen we can get underway and offshore, the better off the Navy will be.”

McNitt, a member of the academy class of 1938, longtime ocean racing coach to midshipmen and author of Sailing at the U.S. Naval Academy: An Illustrated History (Naval Institute Press, 1996), was confident that civilians would find new roles in the program.

“I think it’s very hard to operate without strong support from the civilian community. I think it will work itself out,” McNitt said.

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