Category Archives: Seamanship and Leadership

Discover what qualities make a good leader and a good seaman.

VADM Ryan’s Reflections on Leadership

VADM Ryan at Nimitz Library at the Naval Academy.
VADM Ryan at Nimitz Library at the Naval Academy.

You could hear a pin drop in the room. Retired Vice Admiral John Ryan, U.S. Navy, had the group of 35 midshipmen captivated as he recalled a remarkable young woman he’d met. She had been born without arms and legs, but she took her mother’s advice to focus on what one can do instead of what one can’t. This woman managed to become an engineer for NASA. The moral of Admiral Ryan’s story was to always examine other people’s lives and consider how they can shape the way we lead ours.

This was just one of the many lessons I took from the former Naval Academy Superintendent and current president of the non-profit Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). He spent the day visiting the Boston University School of Management and made time to address NROTC midshipmen.

What is striking about Admiral Ryan is his approach. His background commands great respect – in addition to his naval service, he oversaw 80,000 faculty and staff as Chancellor of the State University of New York – yet the soft-spoken former P-3 pilot also presents authenticity and humility. Perhaps that’s what makes his wisdom stick.

Be Like Ed
                          Be Like Ed

“You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” Ryan said in describing the “learning agility” that distinguishes great leaders. He and his organization, CCL, have found that continually embracing challenge and having a “growth mindset” are essential to leadership success. Great leaders are able to learn from experiences and apply them to new ones. They also need to make their subordinates feel comfortable in “stretch assignments” and willing to take chances. This takes sincere mentorship and a culture that forgives occasional failure.

The other theme Admiral Ryan stressed was self-awareness. He jokingly recalled the late New York City Mayor Ed Koch who would famously ask citizens “How’m I doing?” Leaders need to open themselves up to feedback, be willing to hear the bad in addition to the good, and make time to reflect.

When was the last time you heard a naval leader encourage officers taking time to reflect and learn from their everyday leadership experiences? Yet as Admiral Ryan explained, this is essential to growth and self-awareness.

The U.S. Navy, by necessity, emphasizes technical and tactical proficiency, but through my MBA classes and now Admiral Ryan’s insights, the importance of “softer skills” is becoming increasingly clear. Vice Admiral John Ryan may no longer wear the uniform, but the Navy and our officers could learn a great deal from his lessons, as I myself was fortunate to do today.

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. 

A Tale of Three Fires

USS Manley (DD 940)

On April 9, 1979 a fuel line ruptured in the boiler room aboard USS Manley (DD 940).  An officer standing nearby was soaked with fuel which then burst into flames.  LT Gilbert Johnson was burned over two thirds of his body as his polyester uniform melted to his skin and continued burning.  Eight other Sailors in the boiler room received only minor burns.  They were all wearing cotton, or cotton blend, uniforms.  Three weeks after the fire LT Johnson died of his burns.

During a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the uniform, Peter Brown, a professor of textiles and clothing at the University of Minnesota said that the polyester uniform would be suitable for normal activities, but that “It does melt.  It does ignite.  It does continue to burn.”  According to other depositions in the case the Navy certified the used of polyester uniforms in 1972 but never tested them for flammability.  Despite the testimony, there is no indication that the Navy took action against the wear of 100% polyester uniforms aboard ship following the death of LT Johnson.

USS Conyngham (DDG 17)

In May 1990, a predawn fire killed the operations officer and injured a dozen sailors aboard USS Conyngham (DDG 17).  The blaze forced the captain to evacuate the bridge and the combat information center while the crew battled the main engine-room fire and a series of secondary fires.

The fire erupted in the main boiler room at 5:35 a.m. as the 437-foot ship was sailing about 80 miles off the coast of North Carolina in what the Navy calls the Virginia Capes Operating Area, officials said.

“The fire spread to the combat information center spaces, which caused the captain to evacuate the combat information center and the bridge, temporarily leaving the ship without communications and dead in the water,” White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.

The Conyngham’s skipper, Cmdr. W. R. Williams, reported that the main fire was extinguished within two hours but that the crew fought secondary blazes until noon.

USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41)

At 4 a.m. on October 5, 2010 a fire broke out in the deck department office aboard USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41).  The fire burned for over 90 minutes, cutting off access to repair locker 2 and requiring assistance from neighboring ships and the base fire department before being put out.  The fire was ultimately traced to the improper use and storage of linseed oil.  As part of the investigation, the Naval Safety Center recommended that the new Navy Working Uniform, a 50/50 cotton/nylon blend, not be used by fire fighters or first responders.  This recommendation was later modified to allow first responders to be in the NWU.

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In October 2012, the Navy conducted a seemingly unplanned and unrelated flammability test.  The test, now much talked about, found that the NWU was not flame resistant, and when set alight would “burn robustly until consumed”.

MI-6 originally designed the fabric of NWU's as a way to increase Soviet naval fatalities during peacetime.
MI-6 originally designed the fabric of NWUs as a way to assassinate Soviet naval leadership.

In subsequent media releases the Navy disclosed that the requirement for a flame retardant uniform aboard ship had been rescinded in 1996 and that the NWU met current requirements for shipboard use.  These comments are very similar to the Navy comments about the use of CNT uniforms aboard ship in 1979.  Despite the fire onboard Manley, the Navy continued to allow the wear of CNT uniforms aboard ship until after the attack on USS Stark (FFG 37) in 1987.  Corfam shoes and polyester uniforms were banned aboard ship following the attack and subsequent fires.

Now, these are three cases over almost forty years.  There have been at least 60 major fires aboard ships and submarines since 1979.  Fewer than two dozen Sailors were killed in those fires.  One could easily make the case that fire occurs so rarely that a fire retardant uniform is unnecessary.

Yet, take a look at the time of day and circumstances of the fires listed here.  Pre-dawn.  Fires occur to their convenience and not ours and marginal increased cost of a fire retardant should not be outweighed by peacetime statistics.  We fight like we train.

If we cannot equip our Sailors with a fire retardant or flame resistant uniform, at the very least the removal of a shipboard uniform that melts and burns until consumed should be an easy first step.  It was done 25 years ago, we should be able to do it today.

CAPT Junge is a Naval War College Professor and career surface warfare officer with afloat service in frigates, destroyers, and amphibious assault ships.  His afloat career culminated in command of USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41).  Ashore he has served as an officer recruiter and with four different Washington DC staffs.  A graduate of the US Naval Academy he also holds graduate degrees from the US Naval War College and The George Washington University.

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. 

 

Meteorology Rules

 

Taming the Cobra

An interesting post on gCaptain for professional mariners as we enter hurricane season proposes an update to the Mariner’s 1-2-3 Rule

I admit that unlike its 3-2-1 Rule brother for operating with aircraft carriers, I’d never heard of the 1-2-3 Rule. Most of the hurricane tracking, forecasting, and avoidance in the U.S. Navy is distributed to ships  by the Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center in Monterey in conjunction with Fleet Weather Centers Norfolk and San Diego, established in 2010 to consolidate weather services for their respective U.S. fleets (2nd, 4th, and 6th from Norfolk, the rest from San Diego). Officer training focuses on interpreting and using the distributed products rather than understanding how they were developed, but a fundamental education in basic meteorology and oceanography is still taught as part of required naval science courses. 

As it should be. While thanks to satellite imagery, much more accurate weather reporting, and advances in communication technology we’re unlikely to see a repeat of the Cobra Typhoon disaster in World War II (picture above), understanding the seas plays an important role in things such as predicting the range of pirate skiff attacks.