main story image for facebook sharing

Training and Education

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."
Image collage

Changing the direction of the masts on the 26-foot keelboats is one of the most dangerous hazards on the boat. If the bottom pole holding the mast, called the boom, swings around quickly enough without crewmembers ducking, they could be knocked off into the water.

"I'm just trying to teach them how to sail, and do so safely in an efficient manner," said Ensign James Smith, a sailing instructor for Plebe Summer. "I try to be patient, and teach them in a way I would want to be taught: slow and repetitive. I want to build a trust relationship with the plebes. We [the sailing instructors] had really, passionate, dedicated instructor staff teaching us to sail [when we were plebes]. It rubbed off. We want to keep the same proficiency when teaching them."

The plebes will go out a few more times in the boats for familiarity. Once they know the basics, they can pursue a full sailing qualification at the start of the academic year with as few as one or two more lessons needed for completion.

As future Navy or Marine Corps officers, the plebes won't necessarily need to know how to sail, Smith said. However, they will need to know how to communicate in small groups and work together, as both team players and leaders - traits all learned at the Academy and in sailing class.

Navy Photo