Professional Notes

In a way, CART represents the first step in validating whether a cutter has been actively training and assessing her crew and equipment throughout the yearly training cycle. To do this, ATG inspectors thoroughly review checklists for every division on board the cutter. The checklists vary in length but can have thousands of line items ranging from administrative requirements to the quantity and quality of equipment and machinery. To prepare for CART, cutters have to be consistently performing self-assessments throughout the year. Trying to do it all a month before ATG arrives will not cut it.

The Vigilant performs routine semi-annual reviews of the CART checklists and every time a division officer conducts a relief. On top of that, her executive officer and department heads verify the accuracy of the checklists by meticulously assessing each line item. “I must have gone through the deck department checklist about five times before I felt comfortable,” says Boatswain’s Mate First Class Christopher Hoschak, the leading petty officer in deck department. “When the executive officer came through, he saw a few things that we overlooked. In the end, we got it right—it’s a team effort.”

The way a cutter performs at CART is usually indicative of the on-board training programs that have already been established. The Vigilant has training teams for damage control, navigation and seamanship, engineering, combat systems, and anti-terrorism/force protection. To meet mandated requirements, the teams must include experienced and proficient members and demonstrate the ability to routinely train and drill throughout the year. For cutters, this is a difficult but necessary task. Actual Coast Guard operations, weather, and many other competing demands often impede training. “You have to prioritize and take advantage of every opportunity to train,” says Vigilant ’s commanding officer, Commander Jim Estramonte. “When it comes to damage-control training, we hope we never have to actually use it, but if we are ever put in that position, we want to be absolutely sure we can save the ship and ourselves because no one else will be there to help us.” There are more than 120 required drills and exercises for a 210-foot WMEC to complete every six months. To be proficient, a cutter normally has to perform them multiple times. “A 100 percent completion rate is the goal and the expectation,” says Estramonte. “It is a lot of work, but it’s doable with the right amount of effort and attitude.”

Asked about the challenges a cutter may face going into CART and subsequently TSTA, Lieutenant Commander Travis Rasmussen, the Coast Guard liaison officer at ATG Mayport, says, “The biggest challenge [are] cutters that view CART/TSTA as ‘point’ events. CART and TSTA are roughly biannual checkpoints. The most effective cutters diligently maintain their training, safety, administration, material condition, and equipment maintenance programs between training cycles.” If a cutter has to ramp up for CART or TSTA, the implication is that the crew has not been aggressively sustaining all the facets of a cutter’s responsibilities between training periods. “CART checklists, are, quite simply, summaries of the Commandant’s requirements to which a cutter is responsible 365 days a year,” Rasmussen says.

The Vigilant ’s ability to meet ATG’s expectations was evidenced by the crew’s exceptional performance at CART. To assess a cutter, each division is assigned a score based on the number of discrepancies found. They fall into three categories: underway restrictive, training restrictive, and minor. The Vigilant had only 5 training-restrictive and 29 minor discrepancies, with a majority corrected on the spot or by the time the inspectors left Cape Canaveral. According to ATG, this was the lowest CART score of the past two years—a true testament to the crew’s ability to maintain the highest level of operational readiness.

How TSTA Works

A few weeks after CART, the Vigilant sailed up to Mayport and began her three-week training period with the ATG. TSTA has three primary objectives: to demonstrate proficiency in applicable Coast Guard and Navy mission areas; demonstrate proficiency in evolutions essential to safe operations under adverse or hostile conditions; and to sustain training and readiness levels over the long term through the effective use of certified cutter on-board training teams.

Everyone on board a Coast Guard cutter shares the responsibility of maintaining proficiency in combating shipboard emergencies. Yeoman First Class Matthew A. Falor exemplified this attitude by serving as the ship’s primary locker leader in addition to his duty as the ship’s independent duty yeoman. When asked about his additional role, he said,

Being a yeoman by trade does not provide me the background for being a damage-control locker leader. However, throughout my time on Vigilant , I was able to learn and train almost daily on what it takes to be a proficient member of the damage-control team. TSTA then provided me with what I like to call the ‘stone’ to sharpen my skills and knowledge base for the job of locker leader.

Petty Officer Falor worked closely with the rated damage controlmen on board and at ATG to ensure he had the proper knowledge of the equipment and procedures at his disposal. “I left TSTA feeling more confident in not only my damage-control skill, but my ability to teach and train my shipmates.”

TSTA begins with an arrival inspection to assess how the cutter corrected the discrepancies documented at CART. Once the cutter is deemed ready to train, the crew begins demonstrating their proficiency with a few simple drills and some classroom and simulator training, such as the “wet trainer.” The on-board training teams then build on the drills and exercises during the second and third week of TSTA to make them more complicated and to provide opportunities for junior personnel to take leadership roles in each mission area. TSTA culminates with the on-board training teams challenging the crew by creating a fully integrated drill to test their ability to manage multiple events in at least two or three mission areas.

The Vigilant chose a drill simulating a helicopter crashing on deck combined with progressive flooding from striking a submerged object. The scenario involved multiple personnel casualties and cascading damage. “I wanted to eliminate the normal response party members to see how the more junior members of the crew respond to an emergency,” said Lieutenant Jeffery A. Sahlin, the Vigilant ’s engineer officer and damage-control training team leader. “I was amazed to see our youngest and most inexperienced shipmates take over and lead the efforts to save the ship. It showed how effective the training they received at TSTA was, but it also validated what we have been doing throughout the year.”

TSTA Lessons

In the passageway outside the executive officer’s stateroom on the Vigilant , the word “Attitude” has been etched prominently into the deck. “Our strongest asset going into CART and TSTA was the crew’s positive attitude. The training teams onboard were receptive to ATG’s advice and were ready to jump out of their comfort zone to better themselves and their shipmates,” said Lieutenant Commander Tim Cronin. “I am extremely proud of their performance. Their hard work throughout the year certainly paid off—tenfold.”

The Vigilant ’s performance at CART and TSTA earned the crew “Excellence” awards in all warfare areas. For sailors this is known as a “clean sweep.” To receive such an award the cutter must score a minimum of 80 percent for each required drill, obtain at least a 90 percent average in the specific warfare area, and the respective training team must be evaluated as “effective.” These awards made the Vigilant and her crew eligible for the Coast Guard’s Overall Operational Readiness Excellence Award, which combines the cutter’s performance during CART and TSTA performance and assessments of other operational requirements, including how well she conducted her missions throughout the year.

Successful completion of CART and TSTA underscore the role continuous training and crew proficiency play in preparing cutters for sustained mission execution in the most challenging operating areas. The Vigilant ’s recent success puts into practice comments from the Commandant’s 2012 State of the Coast Guard address, in which Admiral Robert Papp talked about the importance of sustaining mission excellence through proficiency. “Proficiency goes well beyond training and qualification. It is also experience, seasoning, a commitment to excellence, and the continuous pursuit of the mastery of your craft.” The Commandant added, “Whether in the operational arts—or mission support and other disciplines . . . each of us has a duty to pursue perfection and achieve excellence.”

Lieutenant DiRenzo is the first lieutenant on board the USCGC Vigilant , homeported in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where he has also served as assistant navigator. He is a 2010 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy with a degree in mechanical engineering. A Fulbright Scholar, he begins his graduate studies in Norway in August.

Mind Your Helm

By Captain Scott J. Phillpott, U.S. Navy

In shiphandling, much attention is paid to the initial rudder order but less scrutiny is given to the helmsman’s precision in finding the desired course. Here is a useful tool for bridge teams to complete turns more precisely. As you experiment with this idea, perhaps you will discover how this simple rule greatly improves bridge-team performance by taking the guesswork out of rudder control.

The next time you have the chance, try this shiphandling experiment. Look at the navigational track and choose an upcoming turn where a modest degree of rudder will be required—a turn of 40 degrees or so. As the bridge team executes the turn, carefully watch the rudder angle indicator as the helmsman steadies on the new course. Was it crisp? Decisive? Most important, could you predict exactly how the helmsman was going to use the rudder to steady on course? If the answer to any of these questions is no, keep reading.

Bridge-team members know to watch the rudder-angle indicator as rudder commands are executed to ensure it goes in the correct direction to the right degree. Likewise, bridge teams attentively watch the gyro and rudder as the ship approaches the ordered course. What is sometimes missing, perhaps taken for granted, is the fidelity with which the turn is completed. How exactly did the helmsman choose to “steady on” the new course? Some helmsmen may use dramatic rudder moves, with large opposing rudder movements to check the swing and get on course. Others use incremental decreases in rudder and timidly—eventually—reach the ordered course. Neither of these extremes is needed or desired for most turns.

The One-Half-Rudder Rule

Choose another turn and try using the one-half rudder rule, best explained using the following example: The ship’s head is 000T, and the command “right 20 degrees rudder, steady on course 100T” is ordered. As the ship’s head reaches 090T (10 degrees shy of ordered course and one-half of the ordered rudder) place the rudder amidships, and leave it there. The ship should come to within one or two degrees of the desired 100T ordered course. Why does this matter?

First, the one-half-rudder rule complements the navigation team’s detailed preparation of navigational charts by providing added consistency in executing turns. While precise turn points and built-in calculations for advance and transfer are mandatory, they are useless if the helmsman is not part of the equation.

Second, it is important for young helmsmen and conning officers to understand their contribution to the bridge team. It is inspiring to watch junior officers and enlisted calmly and precisely execute turns.

Third, it improves bridge-resource management, which is about teamwork in the pilothouse. In my experience, once the one-half-rudder rule was understood by bridge teams, they performed markedly better in completing precise turns and maneuvering in general. My experience on multiple ship types demonstrated that the rule worked particularly well for most rudder- and ship-speed combinations.

Shipboard Flight Operations

A practical strategy for making shipboard flight operations safer is directed at the helmsman but fits into the framework of bridge-resource management. Simply put, have your helmsman sit in the passenger seat of an embarked helicopter while the aircraft is traversing in and out of the helicopter hangar. A simple enough exercise; but exposing young helmsmen, conning officers, and junior officers of the deck (JOODs) to the unnerving feeling of this short trip immediately increases watch-stander attentiveness to rudder control during flight operations.

The idea emerged during a total-ship operational risk management (ORM) review where nighttime helicopter operations emerged as the most perilous activity ships conduct. This presented a challenge to make flight operations as safe as possible. But how? While watching our embarked helicopter being moved into the hangar, the dangers of this deceptively simple exercise emerged. The sway and rock of the helicopter brought to mind a roll-over accident that occurred on board the USS Nicholas (FFG-47) when a helicopter tipped over under similar conditions; thus, ample evidence supported my concern.

Advising the crew to be mindful, stressing the importance of minimum rudder swings, and showing the video of the roll-over accident on board the Nicholas helped, but I could never be certain that these young shipmates fully grasped how quickly things can go wrong in the aviation world, particularly when things seem to be going so smoothly. So, while observing the bridge team during flight operations I suggested that the JOOD head back to the flight deck and take a ride in the helicopter as it was traversing.

Modest shock was her first reaction, but she found a relief and headed back to comply with the captain’s odd request. Her demeanor on returning to the bridge forever convinced me to expand this strategy to the entire bridge team. I could tell instantly that this simple exercise was both positive and lasting in reinforcing attentiveness during all flight operations. Many trips later, the expressions, smiles, and excitement of the bridge team confirmed that we were onto a meaningful improvement in aviation safety.

Did taking a helo-ride across the flight deck make the exercise safer? I certainly think so and have recommended the strategy to every prospective commanding officer I’ve come across. But the real benefits extended beyond paying attention to the helm. The ride encouraged camaraderie between the aviation and bridge team. An increased awareness (intensified by a modest fear) gave the entire crew something to discuss and reflect on. Overhearing discussions regarding aviation safety in ad-hoc conversations was music to my ears. Listening to seasoned JOODs and conning officers as they directed helmsmen to go on this ride was both rewarding and fun. Who says ORM can’t be a win for everyone?

Captain Phillpott is a retired surface warfare officer and senior maritime cyber analyst with Valkyrie Enterprises, Inc. He works at the Navy Warfare Development Command. In addition to four afloat command tours, he was helicopter control officer during more than 600 land/launch cycles on board the USS Schofield (FFG-3)—at the time the smallest flight deck in the Navy.

Notes from the Bridgewing: What It Takes to Be a Great Shipboard Department Head

By Captain Steve J. Coughlin, U.S. Navy

I had the pleasure of serving with an extremely talented group of department heads while assigned as an executive officer and commanding officer of Arleigh Burke –class destroyers. Without such shipmates the associated deployments would never have been so successful. Those officers were the most competent and capable group of professionals I’ve ever served with. One thing is certain: those lieutenants spent a lot of time preparing for tours by committing to academic excellence and were dedicated to improving their professional knowledge. They determined where gaps existed and disciplined themselves to read and study as part of a self-directed program. Subjects included everything from the nuts-and-bolts of shipboard systems to the attributes and leadership competencies associated with department-head life.

One could argue that a department head has the toughest job on the ship because of the depth of knowledge and range of responsibility expected of the position. That’s why preparation and learning beforehand is essential, and a long-term process is established early. Their skills can be broken down to a simple framework of intellectual mastery, intangible know-how, and inspiring leadership. This is the “excellence triad” that should be actively balanced every day.

Cognitive Prerequisites

The department head’s job is to know every shipboard system, including modes of operation, capabilities and limitations, and design specifications. The head must know the details of everything that consumes electrical power or contains a working fluid. He or she must have technically superior aptitude and mental dexterity. Basic understanding will not be sufficient, and few things have such power as knowledge when troubleshooting tough challenges. Considering the high-tech proficiency of today’s sailors, a department head will not even be in the discussion without a deep theoretical comprehension and engineering capabilities.

At the same time, understanding and compliance with shipboard programs such as zone inspections, current ship’s maintenance project management, and planned maintenance are the only ways to ensure satisfactory material readiness. Departmental training must also be aggressive and meaningful, and administrative procedures should be streamlined and efficient. The department head simultaneously must hone the fundamentals of seamanship, navigation, and shiphandling while perfecting every nuance associated with battle orders and rules of engagement. That’s a tall order—and it will not happen without considerable effort. Only a thorough study plan will properly prepare for the cognitive dimension of a department head’s responsibilities. That’s the easy part—and it will not guarantee success.

Intangible Elements

It has been said that a little bit of confidence goes a long way, and I couldn’t agree more. A commanding presence that emanates self-assurance gives the department head an additional abstract element of authority. Ultimately, that disposition filters throughout the department and results in complete ownership of programs, processes, and proficiencies. It encourages optimism, enthusiasm, and good judgment from junior officers, chief petty officers, and work-center supervisors. With confidence, the ability to communicate effectively ensues. Articulate departmental guidance, both verbal and written, allows for logical prioritization and intelligent preparation for all departmental objectives. Such communication should be extended to the other department heads because that team must function as one to achieve success.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of effective communication with the captain. One must decode how that officer processes information and choose the right methods to deliver information. All reports should be concise and accurate. Thinking out loud will draw fire almost as much as telling your life story when single-sentence answers will do. But don’t be timid. Approach each issue with a sense of seriousness, and let the captain decide if there is humor in the situation.

Establishing a personal daily routine will improve time management and allow subordinates to anticipate department-head priorities and availability. These are some of the “how-to’s” of the job, and these subtle skills are as important as knowing the technical features of the ship. But the glue that holds it all together is the day-to-day leadership that promotes all departmental productivity.

Leadership Essentials

If you think of the cognitive and intangible components as ingredients in the department head “layer cake,” then astute leadership is the icing. Although many books have been written on the subject, and we see ourselves often as natural leaders, we must beware of giving lip-service to such an important subject. There are certain absolutes that create an effective blend of influential traits for the department head.

Team building is at the top of the list, and so is leading by example. By seizing the initiative, the leader demonstrates how to take charge and set a course to reach a collective goal. The department head thus builds on the strengths of others and empowers subordinates to achieve things they thought not possible.

A good leadership style combines praise with discipline to get the most out of every sailor and yields a combination of toughness and humility. A firm belief in obedience, forgiveness, and resolve rounds out the department-head lexicon. The department head understands the power of patience, remaining unflappable and composed, and understands that unpleasant situations will pass.

A good department head also recognizes that failure is inevitable in some cases but provides great learning opportunities. Finally, the head always takes an interest in the professional development of every person in the department in meaningful ways to back up the words. It’s best to convey the importance of a subordinate’s effort, show sincere appreciation, and never neglect to recognize hard work. This sort of leadership builds morale and has an exponential effect in overcoming adversity. Such supervision should not be underestimated since its effect on departmental achievement is enormous.

Winning Fundamentals

The complex and unforgiving nature of today’s Fleet demands that the U.S. Navy be a knowledge-based organization. Human capital is our greatest resource. Unfortunately, even the well-designed department-head training pipeline is subject to time and budgetary constraints. The formal education process intended to prepare officers returning to the Fleet relies on the individual officer to expand on the curriculum and dig into the material in a very personal way. Officers must take responsibility for their learning, beginning with honest self-reflection, and pursue it with tenacity to enhance their professional growth.

This set of ideas does not guarantee department-head success. There is no perfect methodology for conquering this very demanding job. The learning curve is extremely steep, but those who have developed their professional knowledge, advanced their intangible skills, and shaped a supportive leadership style have leveled that curve significantly, serving as effective department heads and truly enjoying the fruits of their labor in one of the most critical assignments in the Navy. I was blessed to serve with such a cadre of seagoing officers, and they taught me well.

Captain Coughlin was the director of professional development at the U.S. Naval Academy from 2010-11. A 1988 graduate of the Naval Academy, he spent his career serving in destroyers, frigates, and aircraft carriers. He is the former commander of the USS Bainbridge (DDG-96) of Patrol Coastal Squadron One. He is Deputy Commander of Destroyer Squadron Two.


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