Those Who Wear the Wheel
Quartmasters Chart the Course at Sea
Digital navigation charts glow with activity and GPS satellites plot coordinates with striking precision. A bridge watch team is beginning its next shift. The quartermasters on duty are tasked with moving ships through restricted waterways, performing anchoring and maneuvering details, and navigating the open seas safely.
Long before satellites and electronic navigation systems existed, quartermasters charted their positions by reference to the stars and other celestial bodies, with help from landmarks and maps, techniques such as "dead reckoning," and equipment such as sextants and telescopes. As one of the oldest Navy ratings, quartermasters have served aboard naval vessels since 1798, providing critical navigation skills, maintaining charts and oceanographic publications, and performing bridge watch duties ever since. They are known as “those who wear the wheel,” after the symbol on their rating badge — the ship's wheel — which illustrates their grave responsibility for safely and accurately positioning and guiding their ships.
Operating in busy sea lanes requires a team of skilled navigators. Sailors qualified as quartermaster of the watch work alongside the ship's navigation officer or officer of the deck, ensuring their vessel makes it to and from their destination safely. For Sailors on the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Preble (DDG 88), it is a position of responsibility not to be taken lightly.
“Our main focus is to deal with the safe navigation of the ship, making sure we're in safe waters, assisting the officer of the deck or the navigator and making sure everything is running smoothly when he's not on the bridge,” said Quartermaster Third Class Diamond Copes. “We have to be confident in our position just in case the commanding officer asks where we are in this part of the world.”
Quartermasters work in the ship's pilothouse, where they serve, among other things, and alongside fellow crew members, as helmsmen. They use visual and electronic equipment to make weather observations, determine tide and current tidal data, and maintain deck logs. Following the disestablishment of the signalman rating in 2003, quartermasters assumed responsibility for rendering honors to foreign and domestic vessels, as well, using nautical flags to signal to other ships or to shore. Sailors typically use flags to relay messages back and forth during major evolutions that require clear communication, such as underway replenishments and refueling operations.
“Flags are an important tool in communicating with ships in the area,” said Quartermaster Third Class Destiny McCrea. “We can use them to greet other ships when we see them and pass messages. Each flag has a meaning and sometimes more than one. For example, 'A' can mean [both] alpha and divers in the water, so we really have to make sure we're clear when we're talking to other ships.”
Just as traditional communication tools like nautical flags are still relevant, the same is true for conventional navigation tools. Even as naval technology has evolved to rely on cutting-edge electronics, being able to use tools like a sextant, an instrument used to measure the angle between a celestial body (such as the sun) and the horizon, or between two celestial bodies (such as the stars or the moon), remains a skill all quartermasters must learn, said Copes.
That's because knowing how to plot a course and determine a location in the event that electronic systems are damaged or unavailable can impact whether ships arrive on time and help prevent collisions in high traffic areas.
“Training is constant; you can never get complacent no matter what rank you are because things change every day, and there's always something new you have to learn,” Copes explained. “In 'A' school, we learned paper charts, Morse code, digital fluxgate magnetic compasses, traditional magnetic compasses and the basics of how to use those, but we've moved into the electronic era, so a lot of things are changing.”
The ability to master conventional navigation tools while providing guidance to the ship's navigation officer using the latest navigation equipment makes each quartermaster a key member of the bridge watch team.
As such, a quartermaster occupies a unique position of trust aboard a ship. Understanding that and the importance of navigation are the most crucial parts of the rate, said Quartermaster First Class Mikayla Lovett, leading petty officer of Preble's navigation department.
“When I first joined, I didn't know anything about being a quartermaster, and I learned quickly about navigation and why we use things like flags and celestial navigation,” said Lovett. “The CO [commanding officer] trusts whoever is navigating his ship, especially when he's asleep, so whoever has the title quartermaster of the watch should be proud. It means a lot that the CO trusts you.”