Learning the Ropes
Plebes Learn to Sail in Annapolis' Waterways
Pulling away from the pier, they backed up, turning around slowly to follow the string of boats heading for the bay in Annapolis, Maryland. Awaiting the go ahead from their instructor on what to do next, the plebes in boat No. 16 waited in silence for their next direction, their sun-tanned skin contrasting with their stark, white T's and blue Naval Academy shorts.
Since it seemed they would only speak when spoken to, the instructor told them all to relax and enjoy the sail.
"Now, when we get out of the bay, though, I'm going to need someone to tack. Who remembers how to do that?" he said, referring to the process of turning the boat's bow to the wind and shifting the sails.
Naturally, the plebes had spent time in the classroom being schooled on every aspect of the keelboat and how to sail it, but, now, knowing how to tack was all of a sudden getting muddled with how to "jibe" (or how to turn the stern through the wind), the points of sail and, well, what felt like a thousand other different terms in the vernacular of sailing.
Knowing how to sail and being able to demonstrate this knowledge out in the water is a key part of turning a plebe into a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, and has been for many generations a tradition passed down from the alumni to the plebes.
Every summer, recently commissioned alumni teach the newest class of students how to sail, showing them how to maneuver a boat and turn it into the wind from two different directions, as well as the rules of the road. They give plebes the ability and the knowledge of how to work as a team and take charge and lead - attributes many will take with them to the fleet.
It's a huge benefit for the plebes to have new commissioned officers come back, said Lt. Dan Dematteo, a basic sail training operations instructor. "When they see their end goal of being an ensign firsthand in a small environment, they see themselves as a leader like them."
Out in the Chesapeake Bay, boats can be seen from every angle, near and far. With sailboats moving in every direction, it's important to know what to do to quickly to move the boat, and with one ensign and three or four plebes setting sail in each boat, the training groups are small. The hands are all in and depended on.
"It's more critical, the goal they're accomplishing on a sailboat, pulling lines, moving the tiller," said Dematteo. "The effects and consequences of each action taken is more critical. Pushing through and having the courage, the ability to overcome [their] fears is big. [The training] builds you from the start as a Sailor."