So you want to be a COB?

By JO3 Benjamin Keller

Step into the shoes of the Chief of the Boat (COB) of a U.S. Navy submarine. Like all of his 140-man crew, he spends months at a time submerged where the sun never shines and the work never ends. But unlike the rest of his shipmates, he’s the one charged with keeping the crew’s complaints down and morale high. And, he must offer a strong shoulder for his Sailors to lean on whenever needed.
The COB is an integral part of the chain-of-command on Navy submarines, and his position is defined in the Commander Naval Submarine Force Instruction (COMNAVSUBFORINST) 1306 as the senior enlisted leader responsible and accountable for the performance of the submarine to which he is attached.

“The COB is responsible for the performance of the ship, just like the captain,” said Atlantic Submarine Force Master Chief Don Kultti. 

That’s what Kultti expects from his COBs. They answer directly to the commanding officer, with a particular responsibility for representing the needs of the Sailors and their families. They are also relied on to provide senior enlisted guidance on all facets of operating and maintaining the submarine. “That’s why we need to make sure our absolute top-performing personnel are selected,” Kultti said. It has never been easy to become a COB, and it’s not getting any easier. 

The COB holds a very important position that requires a careful selection process to ensure the right person fills the job. Kultti has taken it upon himself to make sure the Navy is doing all it can to provide the best candidates and select the right people. 

It was the need to retain senior enlisted people in a smaller submarine force that stimulated Kultti to revise the COB program with the new COMNAVSUBFORINST 1306. “As our force grew smaller, the opportunities for people to remain were significantly fewer,” said Kultti. “Our older COB program couldn’t accommodate the future of the force.” 

Revising the program affected two equally important aspects: the role of the COB, and the COB selection process. Kultti noted that there was no definitive guidance in the past for COBs, or for people aspiring to be COBs. Master Chief Petty Officer William “Bubba” Jones said he noticed this deficiency even before he became COB of USS Albany (SSN-753) in 1997. 

“Early on, making COB pretty much depended on being a ‘good-ol-boy,’” he said. “They’d say ‘he’s a good guy’, fill out the paperwork, sign it, and he was a COB. We really needed a change from the buddy system. Now, we’ve progressed into actually having an instruction. We have to live by the letter of the law.” 

Kultti said structure was the missing link. “We lacked structure in the selection and assignment criteria for chiefs of the boat,” he explained. “We needed to develop something that measures individual capability.” Kultti aims to improve the program continually, beginning with the road to becoming a COB. “There is no universally recognized path to become a COB,” said Kultti. “But we need to provide some direction early in each Sailor’s career.” 

Although only submarine-qualified senior and master chief petty officers are eligible, Kultti said the time for Sailors to start thinking about becoming a COB is during their first tour. “There’s no reason Sailors shouldn’t aspire to become a COB when they step on their first submarine,” he said. “We need people with that aspiration.” 

Photo of ETCM-SS Rob Danielson addressing crew. Caption Follows.
ETCM(SS) Rob Danielson, Chief of the Boat, USS Oklahoma City (SSN-723), addresses the crew after morning quarters. 

Jones said although he didn’t make the decision to become a COB until later in his career, he had aspirations of becoming a COB since his first submarine tour. “It goes back to my first submarine,” Jones explained. “I was intrigued by the COB. Anytime he spoke, things happened. I was in awe.” Jones went on to say he made the decision to pursue becoming a COB when he was a petty officer first class. 

“It’s never too early to focus on becoming a COB,” Kultti said. 
“After all, the COB is a product of experience.” He explained that a COB’s authority, based on experience earned through years in the fleet, differs from that of the CO. “Commanding officers are primarily the product of investing in an individual. Chiefs of the boat are primarily the product of experience,” he noted.

Submarine Support Squadron Unit Command Master Chief Bob Krzywdzinski said his experience was key when he was the COB of USS Pasadena (SSN-752) from 1997 to 2000. “You’ve got experience,” he said. “That’s probably your biggest advantage; what you’ve seen and what you’ve heard.”

To gain the right experience, young Sailors need to make big decisions early, Kultti added. “Our young Sailors need to expose themselves to situational duty,” he said. “We need to channel them to those duties to develop the right leadership. That’s how we get the best people for the job when their time comes.”

When their time does come, Kultti said he hopes these Sailors will be ready to accept the COB position with the right motivation. “It’s an important thing to want to be a COB for the right reasons,” he said. “The purpose is not to enhance a person’s individual professional development. Rather, the primary purpose of the COB is to enhance the readiness and professional development of the entire submarine and the men that are assigned to it.”

Jones echoed this sentiment. “You don’t become a COB to make master chief,” he explained. “You’ll probably make master chief if you’re a COB, but that can’t be your reason for wanting the job.”

“We have to be very careful whom we select; we don’t want to send someone down there that’s not going to get it done. 
It’s a tough job, very tough. We owe it to the Navy to make sure these people are okay for the job.”
Photo of MMCM-SS Kevin Kesterson. Caption Follows. MMCM(SS) Kevin Kesterson, Chief 
of the Boat of the Norfolk-based 
Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Minneapolis-St. Paul (SSN-708).

Anyone willing to accept this responsibility must first face a selection board, chaired by a SUBRON command master chief, before they get to be called a COB. At a minimum, the board includes the parent squadron command master chief, a post-tour COB, and the serving COB.

As a command master chief, Krzywdzinski sits regularly on the selection board. “We have to be very careful whom we select,” he said. “We don’t want to send someone down there that’s not going to get it done. It’s a tough job, very tough. We owe it to the Navy to make sure these people are okay for the job.”

He said the board is looking for the complete package in a candidate, but different assets stand out to different board members. “Professionalism really stands 
out to me,” he said. “I want to know he has that quality.”

Being selected as a COB is just the beginning: in fact, it’s barely the beginning. 

Jones recalls his transition after being selected to be a COB. “Even after getting selected, you have only a limited idea of what being a COB will be like,” he said, “
but the true impact really doesn’t come until you get to the boat and walk on board.”

The first thing a new COB may do when he checks onboard is to meet his new CO. The COB is not only responsible to the CO, however, but also to the crew.

“When you are senior leadership, your job is to protect blue shirts; do what is right for the junior Sailors,” said Jones. “Your reward is the success of the Sailor.”

“We rely on the COB to voice our needs to the CO,” said one enlisted submariner, Petty Officer 1st Class Eric Ackwith. “The COB has to put up with all our whining and complaining, and figure out what to do about it.” Ackwith explained why the COB is a necessary liaison between the enlisted crew and the CO. “We know the COB has been in our shoes – he’s gone through everything we go through. Not all officers really understand enlisted life like that.”

Krzywdzinski said a good COB has to continually reassure his Sailors that he knows what it’s like to work in their shoes. “You can’t just hang out in the goat locker all the time,” he explained. “You’ve got to think of the guy in the engine room lower level standing machinery watch. If he thinks that all you do is legislate from the chiefs’ quarters, then he’s also thinking, ‘How can this guy be in touch with what I’m dealing with on a day-to-day basis.’ It’s important that you as the COB are constantly going through the boat.”

As is important as it is for a COB to keep his Sailors motivated, it’s not easy, 
noted Jones. “The biggest challenge is keeping Sailors motivated even doing the mundane things,” he said. “Even basic submarining in port can be a big problem without motivation.”

But even though the COB’s job is difficult and challenging, he enjoys the leadership responsibilities, he continued. “Any COB that tells you they don’t enjoy the
leadership role or the power to fix things...” Jones smirked, “... they’re lying. 
That’s part of the high about becoming a COB. Being a COB is the greatest job in the world.”

Anyone hoping to become a COB shouldn’t expect an easy trail. In port or underway, a COB’s job never eases. Long hours, blood, sweat, pressure, and daily stresses claw at the nerves of a COB, but as Krzywdzinski said with half a grin, “It’s the hardest job I’ve ever loved.”

JO3 Keller is a Navy Journalist assigned to COMNAVSUBFOR Public Affairs.

Hampton’s COB Brings the “Submarine Warrior” 
Message to the Deck Plates

Want to find the chief of the boat (COB) aboard the fast-attack USS Hampton (SSN-767)? Visit the crew’s mess during mealtime. He’s the guy helping fill glasses of water and fetching salads. Wait long enough and you’ll see him grab a rag and wipe down a table or two. Then, head up to the control room during a set of drills, including an emergency blow; he’s right there to offer a pat on the back – or a gruff admonishment – to a junior Sailor. Check him out in the torpedo room an hour later and listen in on his step-by-step instructions for firing a water slug to test the torpedo tubes.

There’s an independent duty corpsman onboard this ship, but if you want to take the temperature of the crew, ask the COB. He’ll tell you how the guys on board are handling the grueling inter-deployment training schedule, the lack of fresh milk and vegetables, or whether a new movie is enough to take the edge off a long, rough day at sea. No one is more qualified to offer an opinion from the deck plates – and that’s where he’s often found.

FTCM(SS) Monty Pyburn doesn’t think that’s anything special, just his job. The 23-year veteran of the Submarine Force listened to VADM John Grossenbacher, Commander Naval Submarine Force, during the latter’s address to the fleet’s senior enlisted leaders in Norfolk, and although Hampton’s COB thought he knew what to expect, there was definitely something new. The admiral urged a “return to the warrior mentality” as the key to bringing about the transformations required in the silent service for fighting the war on terrorism.

“We need to take care of our ships and Sailors the way we’re meant to do,” the master chief said. “But we’ve let our guard down. We need to police our own house.” What that means is following the guide VADM Grossenbacher outlined – a concept he calls “Battle Rhythm.” This philosophy calls for each Sailor in a position of leadership to make it routine to be a submarine warrior, not just some goal a crew strives to reach.

“We’re taking a look at our weekly plans and deciding that no matter what the week holds for us, we’re going to be training, running drills, keeping up our combat tactics, and keeping our damage control skills sharp,” Master Chief Pyburn said. While routine maintenance and earning qualifications are important, they’re not what drive the fleet. Everything we do will be aimed at creating and sharpening submarine warriors. If this sounds like back to basics and a return to old-fashioned Navy values, it is – and more.

“The way we do this job means a lot to me,” the COB explained from his seat in the chief’s lounge, a husky voice and heavy gray bags under his eyes indicating too many long hours getting the job done and not enough hours getting sleep. “We provide a service to keep the homeland safe. If we go out there looking and acting like idiots, well, what does that mean? But if we go out there with a lot of pride, and through our appearance show we believe we’re the best in the world, people will take pride in us.” 

Photo of the crew aboard USS Hampton. Caption Follows.
USS Hampton (SSN-767) Chief 
of the Boat FTCM(SS) Monty Pyburn 
works alongside his fellow crewmembers.

Why do Sailors like Master Chief Pyburn spend years away from the comforts of home? Is it for the pride they see in the eyes of their fellow Americans? You can be sure of that. But Hampton’s COB, who said he wanted the job since first putting on his khakis and entering the chief’s mess onboard USS Jefferson City (SSN-759), has another reason for doing what he does. The most fulfilling part of the job, he says, is “bringing the new kids aboard, getting them trained up and teaching them the ropes, hopefully to see them become chiefs and eventually go on to become
COBs themselves.” 

He singled out a specific second class petty officer as an example of a young Sailor with a great attitude and unlimited potential. After some misdirected energy was realigned, says Master Chief Pyburn, “What he produces is worthy of an E-6 crow.” On the other hand, “one part of the job no COB likes is the discipline.” Correction and punishment must be handled carefully; a ham-handed approach could crush a Sailor’s spirit and hurt everybody’s morale. 

How effective, then, is the Hampton’s COB at handling such difficult issues? What effect does this gruff master chief have on the crew of this fast-attack submarine? Just as an ancient general observed that if you wanted to know him, you needed to know his troops, so the influence of a COB on his ship is best observed on the deck plates. There, the joking comes easily, not forced. There’s a friendly camaraderie, an eagerness to explain the job to a visitor, and a comfortable, professional acceptance of impossibly long hours, even on this three-week trip off the Virginia Capes.

In response to his being asked what he believes the crew thinks of him, the COB responded thoughtfully. “I think most of the crew,” he replied, “would say I am pretty stern when it comes to certain things, such as keeping stuff picked up, general cleanliness, and presenting themselves to the public.” But more significantly, he noted, “I would hope they feel comfortable to come to me first if they have a problem. As far as pride and professionalism, you couldn’t meet a better group of people in the Sub Force.”

JOC Foutch is a Military Editor of UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine.

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