ARABIAN GULF (NNS) -- "This is Lt. j.g. Wilmington, I have the deck. Belay your reports."
On the bridge of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68), Lt. j.g. Colleen M. Wilmington, a Leon, Kansas, native, has just assumed the officer of the deck watch. Now, officially in charge of maneuvering the ship, she has taken the lead of an entire watch team and is the direct representative of the commanding officer. Her position is no small feat.
"You get the fear in the pit of your stomach a lot that you'll mess something up," said Wilmington. "Then you have the anxiety that you'll do something wrong or you'll upset someone, but that all has to go on inside. On the outside you have to be the one who's calm, cool and collected. When I give out orders, when I try to figure out where the ship is going to turn after a recovery, I can't let fear and anxiety come out in my voice. I can't necessarily get angry at someone, because then if I get angry at them they might start to second guess themselves. I need everybody to do their job, so you have to learn how to compartmentalize all those feelings and deal with them after watch."
Watchstanding is one of the most vital roles a Sailor is tasked with in the Navy. Day in and day out, many Sailors stand watch. These Sailors become the eyes, ears, and even the voice of the ship as the nation's bidding is carried out. It is an immense task and it is common for a Sailor to have multiple watchstanding qualifications.
"I'm qualified on the bridge, from helm safety officer all the way through officer of the deck," said Wilmington. "I am the primary boat officer for this ship. I'm the locker officer, I also stand anti-terrorism watch and I recently qualified as non-nuclear EOOW [engineering officer of the watch]."
Though each watch has its own specific set of duties, all watches are governed by the same general orders. Wilmington said she embraces her role as a watchstander and leads her Sailors to do the same.
"One of the basic general orders is to take charge of this post and all government property," said Wilmington. "For me, on any watch that I'm taking, government property includes each one of us, which means that when I take that role in any of my positions, my job is to fulfill the duties of that particular job while having overarching watch of everyone that stands with me."
One of the fundamental elements of watchstanding is trust. A Sailor must trust the training they have received and be able to recall that training to stand their watches properly. Not only are Sailors accountable to their shipmates not currently on watch, but they are also accountable to their shipmates standing watch with them.
"I have to be able to trust them that they're standing the lookout," said Wilmington. "And that trust between the captain, navigator and me is also a part of it."
The watchstanding qualification process is a standardized method to ensure watchstanders are properly trained. Sailors must have the requisite knowledge of governing publications, equipment operation, skills and experience to execute the responsibilities of the watch and train their relief.
"Qualification is accomplished through diligent study and focused training," said Cmdr. Stephen Froehlich, the navigator aboard Nimitz. "That means attending specific schools, meeting practical performance standards, and standing watch under the instruction and supervision of a qualified watch stander, as well as examination boards."
While some qualifications have a timeline associated with them to support follow-on qualifications and designations, the time to qualify depends heavily on individual initiative, dedication to the qualification process, and the timing and opportunities available to perform required demonstration items.
"An assigned watch is a Sailor's opportunity to contribute to the mission by putting their qualifications to use," said Froehlich. "A good watchstander knows and strives to embody the watch standing principles of integrity, level of knowledge, procedural compliance, watch team backup, questioning attitude, formality and ownership. These principles make us effective and keep us safe."
Being able to effectively pass information up and down the chain of command and up and down the watch team is one of the most integral parts of watchstanding. Quartermaster 3rd Class Stephanie Gortarez, a native of Abrams, Wisconsin, is among those Sailors under Wilmington and Froehlich's leadership and responsible for the effective flow of information while standing watch on the bridge of the Navy's oldest aircraft carrier.
"I stand quartermaster of the watch," said Gortarez. "We are assistance to the navigator making sure that the ship stays in safe waters. When we make our reports, our shipmates are counting on us to be accurate and precise in those reports to ensure the safe maneuvering of the ship. We can't afford to be lackadaisical on watch because not only is our watch team is relying on us, but the entire ship is relying on us."
Gortarez admits watchstanding carries a great deal of redundancy. This increases the chance of complacency, but she feels each watchstander must prepare mentally and physically to ensure they're ready to stand their watch properly.
"Even though it's hard with everyday life, it's just making sure that you get enough sleep, because you have to stay awake; you have to stay vigilant and always keep an eye out for other people or anything around us," said Gortarez. "Sure you're tired at 1:30 in the morning, but that doesn't mean that you can go sit in the corner and go sleep; you have to pay attention. It's so important we have eyes on everything. If we miss one thing that can mean the loss of people's lives, and nobody wants that."
Boatswain's Mate Seaman Christopher Hughes, a native of Kansas City, Kansas, and another shipmate, stand the lookout watch, a watch that has the special charge of being the eyes of the ship if electronics fail.
"We have to keep our head on a swivel just in case something doesn't seem right, because the radar doesn't see everything," said Hughes. "If there's another ship, if we don't see it and report it to the bridge then it's pretty much on us. We have to stay very vigilant."
Not wanting to be the difference in whether a shipmate loses his or her life because he didn't stand a proper watch, Hughes presents a scenario to illustrate the importance of his duties as a watchstander.
"Let's say you fall overboard and I'm aft lookout," said Hughes. "I'm the last person that would be able to see who's out there, so I have to be 100 percent on top of my game and report to the bridge that you fell overboard. The moment that I'm just sitting down, not paying attention, you're just drifting away, and no one is accountable for where you're at and you could be potentially gone forever."
The importance of proper watchstanding and a watchstander's role to the safety and mission of the ship cannot be overstated; every watchstander plays an integral role in the ship performing its mission. Whether it's the guidance of the officer of the deck ensuring the safe maneuvering of the ship from the bridge or the eyes of the aft lookout watching for a man overboard from the fantail, it is only through combined effort across watch stations can a ship be effective in its mission and keep the ship and everyone aboard safe.
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