Midshipmen test the waters

Plebes: Aboard training ships, Naval Academy freshmen get a taste of seafaring.

April 26, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

On a hazy morning earlier this week, a 108-foot Navy ship pulled out into the Severn River with a group of jittery teen-agers at the controls.

Marco N. Nelson, 18, whose prior fleet experience ran to inner-tubing on a lake in Arizona, was the vessel's conning officer - its chief lookout. He gazed starboard and saw that his ship, YP 695, was still a tad too close to the sea wall.

"Left, 5 degrees rudder!" he hollered from the bridge wing.

"Left, 5 degrees rudder, aye!" shouted Hunter E. Parden, the skinny adolescent at the helm. With one tentative hand over the other, he spun the ship's silver wheel. The vessel finally swung out into the river, its bow carving through the tranquil green water.

In due time, Midshipmen Nelson and Parden may be the Halseys and Nimitzes of their generation, celebrated admirals commanding a fleet of warships. But first they have to get through drivers' ed.

At the Naval Academy, the freshman-year introduction to ship handling, Naval Science 100, is a rite of spring as old as the tides. Plebes sit through just four weeks of classroom lectures before they head to sea for "lab periods" aboard training ships called Yard Patrol Craft.

Taking charge

As plebes, they stand on the lowest rung of the Navy's soaring hierarchy. But on the Yard Patrol vessels, they are big dogs: officers of the deck, helmsmen, lee helmsman, conning officers, bearing takers, navigators.

Under the wary eyes - and lashing tongues - of instructors, they gradually learn how to make 173 tons of wood and metal bend to their wills.

A two-hour cruise into the Chesapeake Bay this week would see small mistakes and minor triumphs. By the end, the 15 plebes aboard YP 695 would discover truths that only the water could teach.

"When you're in class, you have time to think," said John J. Prosser, 19, of York, Pa., who took a turn as the boat's lee helmsman, in charge of propeller speed. "Out here you have to react right away."

Fond memories

Each spring, all 1,200 freshmen take a spin aboard the school's Yard Patrol Craft. Few forget the experience.

First Lt. Jeffrey "Murph" McCarthy, a 2000 alumnus who now flies Marine Corps helicopters, remembers the thrill of shouting important-sounding orders to shipmates as they docked at New York's Pier 19.

It was the highlight of his Youngster Cruise, the three-week summer voyage up the East Coast that completes the first-year Yard Patrol training. The lunch crowd poured out of the pier's restaurant to see what the ruckus was all about.

"I was out on the bow of the ship in my whites yelling to the guys back on the bridge, `Starboard engine back one-third! Port engine stop! Left, full rudder!'" he recalls. "It was neat to

feel completely in charge of that 108-foot boat, with all my buddies on it, after spending the previous 10 months calling everybody but my roommates `Sir.'"

The school's 20 Yard Patrol Craft, lumbering vessels painted a drab color the Navy calls "haze gray," are plebes' first Navy ships. For many students from landlocked states, they are their first waterborne vehicle, period - save perhaps an inner tube or water skis.

So they are designed for the novice. They move at a top speed of 12 knots. They are girdled by rubber rails; dubbed "rubber baby buggy bumpers" by one instructor, they are there to soften the impact of rookie parallel-parking jobs. And they carry pills for the seasick.

Even so, not even Ric Dahlgren, the Annapolis harbormaster since 1988, could remember any mishaps in the high-traffic waters around a city that calls itself America's sailing capital. The Yard Patrols' plodding speed, their almost fanatical adherence to maritime rules, and the seasoned crew of enlisted sailors make them a gentlemanly presence on the water. "They don't generate complaints," he said.

The other morning, the plebes had scarcely stepped on deck when they got their first lesson in the ABCs of seafaring.

`Precious jewel'

"No coffees or sodas near this," Quartermaster Hector G. Ramos warned, casting a sharp glance at his charges as he unfurled a paper chart of Annapolis Harbor. "Nothing can harm this precious jewel."

There were other rules: No leaning on lifelines. No horseplay. To flush toilets, step on the button. "And if you see something on the boat and wonder, `How does that operate?' don't play with it," he said. "Ask us."

Clad in crisp blue uniforms, the plebes climbed the steep ladder to the bridge and took positions in the cramped pilothouse. One ran his hands over the shiny wheel. Another clasped the levers that send power to the propulsion engines. Two plebes bent over the chart, sliding rulers across its surface.

The man in charge of this crew of fresh-faced mariners was Chief Petty Officer Steve McIntyre, a boatswain's mate at Naval Station Annapolis. He is a beefy sailor with a stubbly mustache and mirrored wraparound sunglasses that give him a bee-like appearance.

`I want it now'

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