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Focus on Service

Taking the Helm

Boxer Sailor becomes first female master helmsman in a decade

When the Sailors and Marines aboard amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4) set sail Feb. 12, many of them set goals to accomplish during deployment. Seaman Gabrielle Connelly, a junior Sailor in deck department, recently accomplished her goal to become the first female to qualify as master helmsman aboard Boxer in the past decade.

"I think it is pretty awesome, I definitely pushed myself with this qualification," said Connelly. "You have to stand a lot of watches under instruction, drive during special evolutions, it takes a lot of practice. I improved with time. It was frustrating at times, but knowing that I am the first female to qualify on board Boxer in the past ten years, I hope that it can inspire other females in deck department or other departments to push for higher goals."

Connelly said goal-setting helped her plan and pursue this accomplishment.

"As soon as I learned about this qualification I immediately knew I had to get it, it was one of my top goals for this deployment," said Connelly. "I felt really comfortable on the helm, it's something I enjoy doing. I enjoy standing watch on the bridge, seeing the Captain, the XO and all the junior officers, it makes me feel a sense of importance."

A challenge to obtaining this qualification for Connelly was the series of pre-requisite qualifications obtained only while underway.

"To get the master helmsman qualification you have to be underway watch qualified, normal underway helm and look-out qualified," said Connelly. "All those qualifications take several weeks to get."

Boatswain's Mate 1st Class Carl Bethea, deck department's leading petty officer, believes it takes a strong focus and a lot of responsibility to become a master helmsman.
Photo collage for the story Taking the Helm, published by All Hands Magazine.

"Being a master helmsman is very challenging," said Bethea. "It requires that qualified Sailors steer the ship during the most strenuous times for example: underway replenishments, pulling in and out of port, straits transits, harbor transits, all of the challenging tasks that take a great amount of concentration and focus."

The qualification process takes a lot of patience and determination due to all the prerequisite qualifications and lengthy duration involved.

"First it starts off with the pre-reqs of being lookout, lee helmsman, helmsman and aft steering helmsman qualified," said Bethea. "The estimated time of completion is twenty three weeks. This qualification is huge in the CO, XO, and navigator's eyes as well. They are on the bridge during every major evolution ensuring that every task from the master helmsman is executed flawlessly. You have to have confidence and be consistent in everything that you do to obtain this qualification."

After standing helm watch aboard Boxer for several weeks and completing all of the personnel qualification standards, Connelly earned the coveted master helmsman qualification.

"Connelly and I have stood a lot of watches together," said Lt. j.g. Caitlin Fine. "Both in the regular watch rotation and during stressful special evolutions like UNREPs [underway replenishments], strait transits, and pulling into and out of ports."

Connelly's dedication is recognized by many throughout Boxer's deckplates and those whom she stands watch with.

"Her tenacity and dedication impressed me from the first time I met her," said Fine. "When she volunteered, after full days of command indoc or work in deck department, to come up to the bridge and be helmsman under instruction, she learned quickly and became one of the helms that I, as a bridge watchstander, trusted to understand how the ship moves and execute commands perfectly every time, even under pressure."

Sailors face many challenges throughout their careers, for a master helmsman the entire watch is a constant challenge.

"The most challenging aspect of steering underway watch is definitely keeping mental focus and realizing the bigger picture," said Connelly. "I need to do this right because it affects the safety of the ship."
Photo collage for the story Taking the Helm, published by All Hands Magazine.

Connelly admits that this qualification isn't easy, but she offered advice for anyone interested in pursuing it.

"Stay focused and don't get frustrated, it comes with time," said Connelly. "I wasn't great at it at first. I definitely had pre-game jitters before going up there the first time. Knowing that I am driving the ship during an UNREP and we are two hundred yards from another ship is a little scary but you have to overcome that and keep your head in the game."

USS Boxer (LHD 4), is the flagship of the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group. Boxer with USS New Orleans (LPD 18), USS Harpers Ferry (LSD 49) and the embarked 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, is operating in the Western Pacific in support of security in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

While in 7th Fleet, the Boxer ARG and 13th MEU are assigned to Commander, Amphibious Force U.S. 7th Fleet, the Navy's only forward-deployed amphibious force, headquartered at White Beach Naval Facility, Okinawa.

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