Conning the Constitution

Constitution goes out to sea in Boston Harbor, August, 2012

When I reached Charlestown Navy Yard on August 19, 2012, it seemed like a perfect morning to be underway in the harbor:  clear skies, a forecast high in the mid-70s, and the ship going to sea was USS Constitution, set to sail on her own power for the second time in 131 years.  Reporting as her conning officer was certainly the last thing I ever expected to do. 

Six months earlier, Commander Matthew Bonner, Constitution’s 72nd commanding officer, asked if I’d be up for the job.  Boston NROTC, where I teach navigation and naval operations to midshipmen, has a long standing relationship with Constitution.  With only an Executive Officer and Operations Officer, the wardroom would be fully stretched that day.  I was understandably more than happy to help out. 

Once onboard, I surveyed the area where the navigation team and I would be working.  The harbor chart was laid out on a folding table in front of the ship’s proud 10-spoke wooden helm about three quarters of the way aft.  Navigation equipment was rather limited; a magnetic compass on each side of the ship’s wheel was the only permanently installed equipment.  Technicians from Naval Sea Systems Command, onboard to monitor the stability of the ship, had also installed a digital reader for course and speed. 

As the underway time of 1000 neared, the ship was buzzing with activity.  Constitution’s normal crew is around just over 50, but they had assistance from 150 Chief Petty Officer-Selects temporarily assigned for a two-week CPO heritage program.  Also onboard were several former Constitution commanding officers, Medal of Honor recipient Captain Tom Hudner (Ret.), three flag officers, and the British Consul General.  With the crew taking in the last line and casting us into the harbor, I could feel the shared excitement as we began our historic cruise. 

There was no conning to be done, initially.  One primary tug boat and a backup were towing the ship approximately three miles to a predetermined “sail box” just past the channel entrance where we would have up to a mile to maneuver with sufficient separation from shoal water.  Despite not having active control of the ship, two Quartermasters laid regular fixes from a handheld GPS receiver. 

Once in the channel, Commander Bonner and the British Consul General laid a wreath overboard to honor the 7 American and 15 British sailors who died in the fierce battle between Constitution and HMS Guerriere 200 years ago that day.  Constitution’s vanquishing of the British frigate was a milestone victory for the early U.S. Navy and also the occasion where the ship earned her famous “Old Ironsides” moniker. 

Summer weekends are popular times for pleasure boaters in Boston Harbor, and that Sunday was no exception.  Hundreds of boats were out in the harbor to catch a glimpse of America’s ship of state, with many trying to follow along for the whole cruise.  Fortunately, the Massachusetts State Police, Boston Police, Massachusetts Environmental Police, and U.S. Coast Guard provided escort and protection with a sizable exclusion zone around Constitution.

The two-hour trip to the sail box flew by.  Before I knew it, our two tugs were turning us around between Deer Island and Long Island and into position.  Around this time our “sail master,” a First Class Boatswains Mate, began barking commands to a hybrid team of Constitution crew and CPO-selects.  In well-rehearsed sequence and with dozens of Sailors on various lines, the crew raised Constitution’s three main sails.  The world’s oldest commissioned warship was coming to life. 

It was almost game time for me and my helmsman, a First Class Sonar Technician.  We reviewed what we learned the prior Friday during steering checks:  maximum rudder in either direction is 20 degrees, one full turn of the wheel is 10 degrees, therefore each of the wheel’s 10 spokes represents one degree of rudder.  There was no rudder angle indicator like one typically finds on ships.  Instead, a black marking on the line wrapped around the wheel moves forward and aft relative four rows of line on either side as the wheel turns. 

The Quartermaster recommended course 260T to return us to the western end of the sail box and back into the channel.  To verify we were on that heading, I called over to the still-connected tug’s captain.  Constitution’s two magnetic compasses fluctuated during the transit and now displayed conflicting headings, and since we were still dead in the water, our digital course repeater was unable to help.  After verifying that we were on the correct heading, I was ready to go.

“Conn, tug’s cast off!”  the Captain yelled to me, and with a “Rudder amidships,” we were off and sailing.  The entire crew, who had worked so hard and waited so long for this special moment, erupted in spontaneous applause as the tugs moved away and took ready station off our quarters.  I can recall the surreal feeling of looking to my left and right seeing no tugs and knowing that I was playing a small part in navigating this almost sacred warship, and would remember it for the rest of my life. 

I allowed myself only a brief period to soak in the moment and then kept my focus on driving the ship.  Although we were laying frequent fixes, I relied on input from the Captain, who had climbed partway up the ship’s rigging for a better view.  Standing by the helm, one has only a limited view of what is actually ahead of the ship.  As we intended to maintain course, only minor rudder adjustments were required. 

USS Constitution handled very surely.  At roughly two knots speed over ground, we pressed ahead.  Our speed, while slow, impressed everyone onboard since we had a tail wind of just about three knots.  That was just enough to fill our sails and keep Joshua Humphrey’s brilliantly designed ship moving ahead.  News helicopters circled overhead and hundreds of boaters kept up with what must have been a majestic sight.  The last time Constitution was underway on sail power was 1997, and prior to that was 1881. 

 

USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere have at it in 1812

Seventeen minutes later, our brief sail into history came to an end.  The tug returned, the crew partly lowered the sails, and Constitution was no longer under our direction.  It felt like no time at all, but I relished every second.  It was a great feeling to shake hands with the helmsman and quartermasters as we shared congratulations and absorbed up what we had just done. 

We were not finished yet, though, as the return to Charlestown was still ahead and Constitution still had one more show to put on.  The tug brought us to a stop just north of Fort Independence at Castle Island, where thousands (including my mom) had assembled for a view.  The crew came to attention, and with a thunderous “boom” a 21-gun salute commenced.   Dozens of surrounding boats answered with their whistles and the harbor was alive with enthusiasm.  Afterwards, in an unscripted moment, the Chief-selects broke out in “Anchors Aweigh,” soon joined by the whole crew.  We sang so loudly that the crowd on shore could hear, I later learned, and they loved it. 

 

LT Chris Peters, after the wardroom meal of hard tacks and salted beef

Around an hour later, a small crowd welcomed Constitution back to the Navy Yard, and we moored where we had started roughly four hours earlier.  Knowing that the day’s events were almost certainly something I would never take part in again, I took time to reflect before disembarking.  I thought of naval heroes like Edward Preble and Stephen Decatur who walked Constitution’s decks two centuries before.  Considering their bravery, courage, and the impact they and USS Constitution had on our early Navy and the country, I was incredibly humbled to feel so connected to their history.  I also thought of the professional, passionate Constitution sailors I met that day.  Those impressive men and women are heirs to and representations of our proud past.  On August 19, 1812, USS Constitution’s iron-like live oak hull repelled British cannon fire, but it was the courage and resilience of the American Sailor that won the day and continues to keep our Navy strong. 

LT Chris Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy and an instructor at Boston University. 

The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

 

Seasteaders: Mining the Sea, Mining the Future

Biomining the Sea
Seasteads are intended to be entrepot that trade in the capitol of the mind: new ideas, technologies, and management styles both public and private. Scarcity is the mother of invention, and on platforms with no natural resources, innovation and expertise are the only tradable commodity… but that will not be the case for long.

Innovations in the field of biotechnology are leading to the more efficient use of microorganisms to leach minerals straight from the sea as a byproduct of fresh-water production. I discussed biomining as a tool for commanders attempting to use battlefield refuse for 3D printing, but on a larger scale it produces a duel-win scenario for Seasteads looking for a supply of both water and profits to support their sea-borne society. While many nations have claims to the vast mineral wealth of the sea-floor, none lay claim to the water-borne mineral content of the high seas. UNCLOS does state in general terms the wealth of the sea being for all people’s, but such stipulations would be too vague to implement if even the institutions existed to enforce them. The minerals of the sea are an open resource, without claim or contract, to be claimed by seasteaders.

G’Day Shipmate
This brings to mind a society that may look very much like our friends, the Australians. Australia is an innovation hub, most recently producing the first single-atom transistor. This is the primary vision of today’s Seasteaders. Australia is also blessed with with abundant resources. The Australian mining industry is booming supported by the hardy entrepreneurial spirit of prospective miners. There is a hearty internal migration of workers out to isolated mining camps to make their fortune. However, most Seasteads will not be glorified roaming country clubs supported by the existent wealth of their monied passengers; they’ll be commercial experiments. No matter how advanced, they will be constrained and distant places like the FIFO camps of Australia. With sea mining, however, Seasteads can add the mineral wealth of the sea around them to the income from the advances developed onboard.

Glimpses of the Future
Seasteading will lead to a bevy of new technologies driven by self-sustainment and efficiency. From mining the sea to water production to electricity generation and retention to recycling. All these developments inadvertantly make Seasteading a model for future space travel. Although under far friendlier circumstances than a cold, radiation-bombareded death vacuum, the efficiencies found by communities living at sea will no doubt find application to our future missions in space. The same bio-mining procedures for the sea could be used on far-off bodies where it is easier to bring a small culture of microorganisims that can be grown to necessary size, rather than the bulky equipment necessary to process ore. As the conventional modes of business are overturned in an attempt to colonize new portions of our own planet, we will be preparing ourselves to colonize others.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Ice-basing the Arctic

So the trappings of life under the thumb of your home country have finally forced you to the seas. Why not strike out to the pristine, untouched mineral-rich reaches of the Arctic? Climate change in the far north may soon open the long-sought Northwest Passage which will allow ships summer time passage from Europe to Asia a fraction of the travel time. Oil exploration is booming with all the big oil companies vying for their slice of the pie. Increased shipping capacity could mean a black gold mine for your tiny floating kingdom, if you can find a place to put it.

This map shows just how complicated the Arctic seascape really is.  Russia has already planted their flag at the North Pole sealed in a titanium capsule.  They are still working out the particulars on the definition of their continental shelf, which may validate their claim of the pole and a huge swath of the frozen north.  But don’t forget, once clear of Russian claims you still have to contend with Danish, Norwegian, Canadian, U.S. and Icelandic territory.  A sea-based nation could benefit from partnership with any of these nations for security and export potential, assuming any of them would be interested in having a little neighbor to the north. 

An Arctic sea-base would mean a harsh existence for its inhabitants. Long periods of cold and darkness would require advanced climate control. Keeping the whole thing afloat on or amid constantly shifting polar ice and occasional liquid water would require clever flotation systems.  Yet all the expense of setting up this sea-base will be worth it.  Others have made significant investment with seemingly impractical logistical hurdles but still continue to make the far north work, there is such a huge economic incentive to do so.  

Creating a sea based nation in the Arctic could provide a tiny floating country with vast mineral wealth and, if the climate models pan out, an easy way of getting it to market. And as of this writing, the Somali pirate threat to the Arctic is pretty much non-existent, good news for security. 

Who Defeated the Somali Pirates?

Ships from CTF-150, one of the mult-national naval force conducting maritime security operations off the Horn of Africa

The New York Times published a piece last week describing the “sharp” decline in piracy off the coast of Somalia  It cited data provided by the US Navy demonstrating that attacks had significantly fallen off in 2012 compared to 2011 and 2010.  The decline was attributed to industry having implemented better security measures, the large-scale participation by forces from many world navies in counter-piracy operations in the region, and raids conducted to rescue hostages.

Conspicuously absent, however, is any mention of how events ashore may have impacted piracy.  The only mention in the piece as to how actions on land are related to piracy was that “renewed political turmoil” or “further economic collapse” could cause more Somalis to pursue piracy as a livelihood.

In June Matt Hipple made his case in this blog that international naval operations had little or nothing to do with the current decline in piracy.  He argued that the Kenyan invasion of Somalia and continued operations by the multi-national forces of AMISOM, as well as armed private security forces onboard commercial vessels were the decisive factors behind the recent drop in pirate attacks.  Another June piece by the website Somalia Report attributed the decline to internal Somali factors, primarily declining financial support by Somali investors in the pirate gangs, and increased operations of the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF).

A basic principle within the social sciences and statistics is that “correlation is not causation.”  Just because the U.S. and other world navies applied military force at sea to combat Somali pirates does not mean that maritime operations caused the piracy decline, particularly when there are so many other independent variables have contributed to piracy, especially those ashore driven by Somalis themselves.  Until this year the only group with real success at stopping piracy over the last decade was the Islamic Courts Union (forerunner to al-Shabab), who stopped it when they controlled southern Somalia for most of 2006.  Piracy came back when the Ethiopians invaded and forced the Islamic Courts Union out of Mogadishu and the pirate strongholds at the end of that year.

It is possible that a debate over who defeated the Somali pirates could mirror the similar debate over the effectiveness of “the Surge” in Iraq.  U.S. Army Colonel Gian Gentile has been one of the most outspoken advocates of questioning the conventional wisdom assuming that the 2007 U.S. troop increase in Iraq and the adoption of the Counter-Insurgency doctrine were what caused violence to fall.  He instead argues that Iraqi-driven variables such as Sunni insurgent groups accepting U.S. money to switch sides and Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr’s decision to stop attacks were what made the difference.

Both the deployment of ships and other assets by the world’s navies, as well as changed behavior by the maritime industry, have played some role in the drop in pirate attacks.  To assume that those were the decisive factor, however, with no consideration given to what has actually happened in Somalia over the past few years, is shortsighted and ignores the larger reasons for why the phenomenon of Somali piracy started in the first place.

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence Officer and currently serves on the OPNAV staff. He has previously served at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence and onboard USS ESSEX (LHD 2). The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.

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