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Around The Fleet

I Have the Deck

Taking Charge on Nimitz

On the bridge of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68), somewhere in the Arabian Gulf, 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.

"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, becoming 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 are governed by the same general orders. Wilmington 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 who stands with me."

One of the fundamental elements of watchstanding is trust. Sailors must trust the training they have received and be able to recall that training to stand their watches properly.

"I have to be able to trust them that they're standing the lookout," said Wilmington, explaining that Sailors are accountable to their shipmates. "And that trust between the captain, navigator and me is also a part of it."

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That trust is earned through training and a standardized watchstanding qualification process. Sailors must have the requisite knowledge of governing publications and equipment operations, as well as the 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 watchstander, 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 and dedication, as well as the timing and opportunities available to complete required tasks.

"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 watchstanding 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 responsible for the effective flow of information while standing watch on the bridge.

"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 relying on us, but the entire ship is relying on us."

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Gortarez admits watchstanding carries a great deal of redundancy. This increases the chance of complacency. As a result, she said watchstanders must prepare mentally and physically to ensure they're ready to stand their watches 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," 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 that 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, stands the lookout watch with a shipmate, 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. "We have to stay very vigilant. ... Let's say you fall overboard and I'm aft lookout. I'm the last person who 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. ... You could be potentially gone forever."