Sail Ho or Sail No?

Proceedings - Comment & Discussion - November 2011

By Art Pine

Training on sailing vessels at maritime academies has long generated spirited debate. Today the ebb and flow of the argument is nowhere more apparent than at Annapolis.

Lieutenant Brian Boland, U.S. Coast Guard—Mr. Pine brings to the surface a serious issue at our nation’s maritime academies. Sail training is indeed the finest leadership laboratory for cadets and midshipmen who will take to the sea upon commissioning. Its more practical application of real-world lessons cannot be understated, either.

As a newly commissioned ensign, I brought with me four years of varsity offshore sailing experience gained at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Not more than a month after reporting aboard, I found myself under way in the North Atlantic in early fall. While on the bridge as a deck watch officer in training, we came across a 32-foot sloop that appeared to be struggling along toward the East Coast. Her sails were not trimmed correctly, lines were in disarray on her deck, and the vessel was not making any headway.

I knew, based entirely on my experiences from sailing at the collegiate level, that this sailboat was in trouble. My commanding officer was not convinced, and the officer of the day and I were directed to continue past the sailboat. Thanks to support from the OOD, I again pressed the commanding officer to investigate the sailboat. Reluctantly, the rigid-hull inflatable was launched with a boarding team to appease my nagging.

They soon found one older gentleman on board who was in an advanced stage of diabetic shock, having been unable to eat or drink for several days. The sailor was in such a condition that a Coast Guard H-60 was quickly launched to medevac the man from his boat to a hospital in Massachusetts.

As the sun was fading, this left us in the precarious position of having to tow a sailboat at night in quartering seas. I quickly volunteered to sail his boat roughly 100 miles back to Cape Cod. My roommate, recognizing the adventure at hand, also volunteered. The two of us then set off for a long night. My roommate, a talented football player and classmate from the Academy, promptly got seasick and fell asleep. After 24 hours under sail, we safely delivered the boat at Provincetown. It was my time spent sailing that likely saved this man’s life and his boat.

In our current austere fiscal times, budget cuts are no doubt a necessity. But the last time I checked, soccer balls, baseball gloves, and football helmets don’t have a practical application in our chosen profession, nor do they directly contribute to lessons in seamanship. Sailing at a maritime academy places young men and women in tough circumstances where they will experience thrills and danger in a wet, cold, and sleep-deprived environment. These are the exact same conditions they will face as junior officers. No classroom can properly duplicate this environment. If cuts are necessary, sailing is the last place we should look.

Lieutenant Commander Kristian B. Barton, Civil Engineer Corps, U.S. Navy—I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Pine’s assertion that the maritime services, and ultimately the nation, will be poorly served by “reducing sail,” i.e., cutting funds and programs for training future seagoing officers on board sailing vessels. Admittedly, as a Civil Engineer Corps officer, I am a “landsman” (in Patrick O’Brian’s parlance), but I am also a relatively experienced small-craft sailor, having grown up plying the Great Lakes on board my family’s sloop. At an early age, I learned boat-handling and seamanship skills, navigation, watchstanding, maintenance, and dealing with inclement weather such as the sudden and often violent storms characteristic of the Great Lakes.

The experience resulted in my becoming a mature, responsible mariner with a profound respect and appreciation for the forces of nature and the folly of complacency. Several seasons of “around-the-can” racing in Lake Huron reinforced the value of teamwork and gave me an appreciation for how fast things happen on sailboats, despite the fact that we might only be moving along at a stately five or seven knots.

These skills served me well years later in Officer Candidate School courses in seamanship and navigation; training on board YPs in Pensacola Bay was perhaps less intimidating than it might have been to someone with little or no prior experience on the water. As a young ensign at Naval Submarine Base New London, in Groton, Connecticut, I can clearly remember watching cadets from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy sailing their small keelboats on the Thames River, even in February. I had the privilege of organizing a wardroom tour on board the Coast Guard Academy’s 295-foot barque, the USCGC Eagle (WIX-327). I wish I had even a fraction of the formal sail training that students at the maritime service academies enjoy. While I don’t have need of these particular skills in my professional capacity today, I use them on the Chesapeake Bay in my off-duty time as the self-appointed CO/NAV/CHENG/1st LT of my own 27-foot sloop. I can only imagine how enriching this training is for future surface warfare officers, cuttermen, and deck officers.

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.

Perhaps Mr Pine is now part of Inkwell Management.