This Month:

What Does It Take To Drive A Warship?

I. The Quartermasters

redWhat does lineage mean to you? What do you know of your family history? Did its past live alongside records in a great war? Or perhaps it was chronicled as part of some great voyage. What if your family history was one as old as time itself?

The term, “quartermaster” goes back centuries, but its practices date back eons. Over millennia, generation after generation have used trial and error, innovation brought forward by necessity to shape the art-like science that is nautical navigation. As time progressed, the pillar of efficiency and accuracy has been erected taller, but the foundation on which it stands remains petrified in salt, cemented as a symbol of its humble beginning. Since the formation of the United States Navy in 1775, the progression made to the capabilities of the Quartermaster, and their ability to navigate the sea, has made nautical voyage more accurate and precise than ever before while still maintaining the methods used for centuries.

Long before the days of metal hulls and turbine-driven propulsion, Sailors worked to develop a means of accurate navigation through vital water ways and open ocean. Without the electricity or satellite communication of today, they had to utilize nature, human intuition and fundamental mathematics. Navigational techniques utilizing celestial objects, land markers and chart displays, were the primary means of determining course and locations up until the past quarter-century.


Sextant – an instrument with a graduated arc of 60 degrees and a sighting mechanism, used for measuring the angular distances between objects and especially for taking altitudes in navigation.

“I’ve seen the tools and techniques we use to navigate change just in the 21 years I’ve been in the Navy,” said Senior Chief Matthew Searer, the leading chief petty officer in charge of Navigation Department aboard USS Nimitz (CVN 68). “When I first came in, celestial navigation is all I did. I would use a marine sexton and just the stars, the moon, the sun and algebra to do what Global Positioning System (GPS) does now.”

The past couple decades have seen the rise of GPS navigational programs. Coupled with other modern technology, accurate nautical navigation has become quicker than ever before.


QMCS Matthew Searer

“Today we primarily use Voyage Management System(VMS),” said Searer. “It’s a computer navigation system that takes in GPS and gyro inputs to provide an electronic navigational chart. A majority of navigation is done through mathematical equations and VMS is able to do that for us very quickly. This system allows us to compute accurate coordinates very quickly, while at the same time eliminating the huge amount of paper we needed before to print navigational charts.”

Innovation has simplified many complex processes and made it easier for humans to accomplish what would have been dangerous and almost impossible centuries earlier. While these tools are very useful and give navigators a step up, there is a resurgence of tried and tested techniques from the past.

“In the world we live in today where technology, especially in the field of electronics, is changing so rapidly we need to keep in mind how susceptible our tools are,” said Searer. “Today, countries are developing technology that can tap into our GPS and it’s obviously a huge issue if your enemy knows exactly where you are.

While there are strategic reasons why it’s important to maintain trained navigators, there are also safety reasons.

QM1 Jonathan Baker

QM1 Jonathan Baker

“There are times during crucial evolutions like underway replenishments, or special anchor detail when there would be catastrophic consequences if our computer systems gave out,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Jonathan Baker, Nimitz’ assistant leading petty officer for Navigation Department. “VMS provides a great cruise control for our ship, but it can’t adapt and make split second decisions. That’s why the human element is still so important even though we have electronics.

If you look at the past and present of navigation you will find they have a distinct difference in the utilization of GPS and other electronic instruments. Look a little closer though and you will find they still have much in common. The mathematics and key fundamentals that make navigation possible are still very much the same. The tools we use today are a powerful asset that allow us to navigate accurately and seamlessly, but every navigator is still responsible to their roots and must be able to manually chart the sea.

While the methods for navigation have been subject to change, the fundamentals still keep Sailors anchored to our past. The future will always bring with it innovation, but Naval traditions keep history very much alive. Since the inception of the United States Navy, the quartermaster has been at the forefront of navigation, paving the way for those to come, preserving a naval lineage rich in tradition and honor.




II. The Officer of the Deck

Officer of the Deck

Officers of the Deck (OOD), like Lt. J.g. Bradley can be very busy people. This is especially true when the ship is operating in company with other ships or close to a shipping lane.

While the crew of Nimitz sleeps, the ones who keep the watch man their posts. Lt.j.g Kenneth Bradley spends those nights on the Ship’s bridge, standing one of the most important posts onboard, the Officer of the Deck.

What Is the Officer of the Deck (OOD)?

The OOD is the officer responsible for safe navigation of the ship and the safety of the crew. The biggest thing, and the most nerve racking, is when you are getting qualified and the Captain says “I’m comfortable going to sleep leaving the ship to your charge.” When he’s not on the bridge, you’re it.

How do you become OOD qualified?

You start off as Junior Officer of the Watch (JOOW). You are the person in charge of communications between us and other vessels and checking all of our radars. Then you move to Conning Officer (con). Before you can start standing OOD UIs, you have to be a pretty good ship handler. When you are OOD and you have a con working under you, you have to guide them as well. You might have a really new con, and they will be looking to you.

Binoculars are an important tool during the OOD watch. Boats, buoys, even whales are spotted every day.

What do you remember from your qualification process?

I remember the first time I took the con, from the watch station watching radars and making phone calls, I was scared to drive the ship. Lt.j.g Lady [the OOD at the time] said “you’re taking the con.” I was like no I’m not, I’m not ready, I haven’t even memorized the commands. Then she said out loud “Attention to the pilot house, this is Lt.j.g Lady, Ensign Bradley has the con.” I looked at her like, what are you doing? I had to take it. What do you do? She just whispered “I won’t let you fail.” So I had to drive the ship. She was right there with me telling me what call to make next. I was literally her puppet. But she made me stand in those shoes, and after she did I was thankful for that.

What are some of the challenges of standing OOD?

Bradley: You are that single point of information, people will call you and ask your permission to do things around the ship. It’s more than having the knowledge but knowing how to apply the knowledge and having a situational awareness of what’s going on around the entire ship.

What have you learned about standing OOD?

One of the biggest things I’ve learned about standing this watch is having confidence and being calm. Even when we are running drills and evolutions, as an OOD, remaining calm in situations shows your bridge team they can have confidence in you instead of spazzing out. That’s one of the biggest things I have to think about when we are practicing things. I have to remain calm even though in the depths of my soul there is a storm brewing.

How does your attitude on the bridge effect the bridge team?

The way I act keeps it in their mind to remain calm and execute procedural compliance. When it comes to nervousness and the weight of the watch, that is the thing that differentiates someone doing well.




III. The Gator

Cmdr. Steve Froehlich

The Navigator, Cmdr. Steve Froehlich, must lay out the ship’s intended track days or weeks before getting underway. “The key to navigation is keeping Nimitz in safe water; knowing precisely where we are and where we’re going any given time.”

When Cmdr. Steve Froehlich wakes up every morning on board the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) he is one of the few people who, without scope or radar, knows where the ship is, or at least where it should be. Froehlich is Nimitz’ Navigator, or Gator for short.

Balancing the responsibilities as the head of the Navigation Department as well as mission critical operational demands, Froehlich’s work begins long before the ship even leaves the pier.

In the weeks leading up to an underway, Gator charts the intended course for the vessel in question. Working around navigational hazards and making sure the ship is staying in, and sailing into, safe water.

“Really you start by finding the most applicable charts,” said Froehlich. “I say charts, but today we use Voyage Management System (VMS) a software based navigation system. We pick the chart to get from point A to point B that ensures we have the best level of detail for the transit we want to take.”

After finding the correct chart, Gator then uses navigational aids or landmarks to tell the space positions relative to the ship’s location on the chart as well as the globe. This gives Froehlich and his team the information necessary to tackle the next step of the charting process, the time speed distance aspect.

“The key to navigation is keeping Nimitz in safe water and knowing precisely where we are and where we are going to be at any given time,” said Froehlich. “Although it may be fun, it’s not a pleasure cruise. We have to be at specific places at specific times. Once we have the track laid down and know the distance of our route, we can ensure that we arrive on time.”

USS Nimitz

While underway, the Gator oversees the day’s operations from the bridge, his chair only feet away from the commanding officer’s.

Though this is Froehlich’s first time as a Navigator on board a ship, he is no stranger to the basics of navigation. During his time as an aviator, flying SH-60B and MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopters, he became familiar with charts and compasses.

“In a lot of ways it’s the same, but there are ways that it is different,” said Froehlich. “The last time I was exposed to surface navigation was on board USS Juneau (LPD 10) from 2004 to 2006, I was deck qualified there, but it was less navigation and more driving the ship.”

To become a navigator on board, Froehlich attended four months of training at the Newport, Rhode Island Surface Warfare Officer School. While there, he learned surface navigation, advanced navigation and advanced ship handling. The training didn’t stop there for Froehlich though.

“There was a lot of on-the-job training once I got here,” said Froehlich. “The turn over process was a good 30 days plus or minus, getting exposure to and getting to know the rest of the team and seeing how Nimitz does business. Tailored Ships Training Availability and Final Evaluation Problem (TSTA/FEP) have been a great opportunity to see how Nimitz operates.”

With TSTA/FEP and Nimitz’ basic training phase at to a close, Nimitz can turn its sights towards a 2017 deployment. Froehlich and his team stand ready to tackle any operational task the Nimitz might encounter.



IV. The Steering Team

The responsibility of steering a U.S. Navy warship falls on a 3-man team. This small crew consists of a conning officer, helmsman and lee helmsman. Each working together to safely and seamlessly maneuver their ship through the world’s water ways. The conning officer acts as the ship’s eyes, giving course and speed change, while the helmsman pilots the vessel and the lee helmsman adjusts power output from the turbines. Together, the three are responsible for the ship, her crew and their mission.

The Conning Officer

Nimitz News: What is the purpose of the conning officer?

Ens. Colleen Wilmington

Ens. Colleen Wilmington

Ens. Colleen Wilmington: The conning officer is responsible for driving the ship. Yes, the OOD is overall responsible for the ship and has to be able to look over everything going on. While the OOD is looking into flight operations or navigation, the conning officer keeps their eyes pointed straight forward to make sure the ship is safe. They are the ones that are giving orders to the helmsman and lee helmsman for the ship’s speed and direction.

NN: What are some precautions to take before assuming the watch?

CW: It’s very important to be as rested as possible before going up. When you’re on watch you can’t take your eyes off the water for a second. You’re driving 90,000 tons through the water and any mishap has the potential to be very dangerous.

NN: How is driving an aircraft carrier different than other Naval vessels?

CW: Everything on our ship is bigger so there’s just that more potential to get someone hurt or cause a lot of damage. Every command you give needs to be exact and everyone needs to be listening.

The Helmsman/ Lee Helmsman

Nimitz News: What are the responsibilities of the helmsman?

BM3 Christopher Hill

BM3 Christopher Hill

BM3 Christopher Hill: The helmsman’s primary responsibility is to be the hands of the conning officer (con). The con is like the head of the driver and the helmsman and the lee helmsman are their arms and legs controlling the throttle and steering.

NN: Why are the helmsman and lee helmsman split into two different positions?

CH: In order to maximize efficiency, the helm is split into two positions. While the helmsman focuses on steadying course and direction the other can focus on speed and engine capabilities. At any given time if we have a malfunction with our propulsion, the lee helmsman can communicate that to the conning officer while the helmsman just concentrates on steering the ship.

NN: Why does the helmsman repeat back all commands from the conning officer?

CH: Repeat backs let the conning officer know that the helmsman heard the correct order and complied with it. For example, the conning officer would give the order, ‘all engines ahead flank, 125 RPM’ and the lee helmsman would respond with ‘all engines ahead flank, 125 RPM indicated and answered for’.

 NN: How does the helm interact with the ship to change speed?

CH: When the lee helmsman is given the order for a speed change they will input all the information electronically. That message then travels down to throttle one and throttle two down in reactor, personnel down there read the information and send up confirmation of the change.

The Helm

The Master Helmsman

Nimitz News: What is a master helmsman?

SN Gabriel Meredith

SN Gabriel Meredith

SN Gabriel Meredith: A master helmsman is not only trained on how to work the helm, but is also able to elaborate and understand all the different components that go into driving the ship. They are primarily utilized when doing special evolutions where there is a high amount of risk like during underway replenishments or pulling in and out of port.

NN: How does someone become a master helmsman?

GM: It all starts with becoming a regular helmsman. You become a lookout then put in however many hours on the bridge until you become qualified. Then you have to stand the helmsman watch during special evolutions and put in enough hours until the captain becomes confident in your ability.

NN: Why is the helmsman position almost always stood by deck department personnel?

GM: Traditionally, boatswain’s mates were deck hands and manned all the watches on the ship, to include lookout and helmsman. As time progressed several of the watches got turned over to other entities like Operations Department, with their radar systems, and Navigation, but steering the ship has still stayed primarily a deck watch.

logosmallStory and photos by SN Cody Deccio and PO3 Kenneth Blair

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