During the early part of 1914 a number of yachtsmen from New York, Boston, and other eastern ports formed an organization the purpose of which was to be, as its constitution stated,
to establish a high standard of skill in the handling and navigation of yachts, to encourage the study of the science of navigation, to co-operate with the agencies of the United States Government charged with the enforcement of the laws and regulations relating to navigation, and to stimulate interest in activities which will tend to the upbuilding of our Merchant Marine and our Navy.
An ambitious program, but one which has been well carried out. This organization, which is called the United States Power Squadrons, has grown to nearly 2,000 members in the 22 years of its existence and carries on a unique educational activity, not only of great value in time of peace, but of great potential importance in case of war. It should be better known than it is.
The men who started the Squadrons were yachtsmen interested chiefly in motor boats. These were a comparatively new development in those days with possibilities for accurate navigation and responsibilities in relation to other craft which were just beginning to be realized. With the outbreak of the European conflict the Squadrons were organized as a potential naval auxiliary, carrying on drills in squadron formation, signaling practice, and other similar activities, which were later turned to good account by members who entered the naval service during our participation in the war. After the close of hostilities the basis of membership was broadened to admit not only the owners of sailing craft, for the development of the cruising auxiliary had turned the thoughts of many of the more serious yachtsmen in that direction, but also those who were interested in the Squadron’s objects, although they did not own boats. Activities of an educational nature became more and more important so that at the present time most of the membership is actively engaged in giving and receiving instruction in navigation, seamanship, rules of the road, and other similar subjects.
To begin with, there is a course in elementary seamanship and piloting which is given in a number of cities on the Atlantic coast and is open to the general public free of charge. Covering as it does many subjects which are of great value to all small-boat owners, it is very popular and well attended. This year it is being given in 20 cities to over 2,000 people. Since the course has been given each year since the close of the war, it is obvious that a good many thousand people have received in this way the rudiments of a nautical education. There is no doubt but that the Squadrons have been largely responsible for the improvement in the standard of seamanship among yachtsmen in recent years.
The students in the elementary course are not members of the United States Power Squadrons, but may become members by passing an examination on the subjects covered by the course. All candidates for membership have to pass this examination and must therefore know something about the rules of the road, understand buoys and lights, be able to lay a course on a chart, know what the compass errors are and how to allow for them, and have a more or less general knowledge about other subjects such as anchoring and maneuvering, fire prevention and control, etc.
Three courses are given to members, starting with advanced piloting the first year which takes up in considerable detail such subjects as the compass, charts, tides and currents, and methods of finding position from objects on shore. Offshore navigation is begun the second year with the junior navigation course, and completed with the navigation course the third year. Each of these courses carries a corresponding rating so that members are known as advanced pilots, junior navigators, or navigators.
The remarkable thing about all this is the enthusiasm shown by both students and instructors and the amount of work devoted to studies which are for the most part of no immediate practical value. Members of the Squadrons are often business and professional men whose time is so taken up that the hours devoted to Squadron work are at a distinct sacrifice of other interests. It is a hobby pure and simple, and therefore undertaken with all the enthusiasm men put into hobbies. Having no particular use for celestial navigation, they have no temptation to concentrate on short cuts and neglect theory; consequently those who finish the course have a very thorough knowledge of all phases of the subject. Indeed, except for the dexterity that comes with practice they are probably better navigators than the average merchant seaman, while some of them can qualify as experts. It is true they lack practical experience, a lack partly remedied by occasional offshore voyages aboard small boats and partly by infrequent opportunities to make passages on large vessels. It is also true that many of the members having once attained the grade of navigator are satisfied to stop there and eventually forget most of what they have learned. Nevertheless they have laid a good foundation which some day may prove valuable.
At the present time there are 17 local squadrons carrying on this work, situated in most of the principal cities between Providence and Washington, as well as in many of the smaller ports. About half the members own boats, ranging in size from an 11-foot catboat to a 132-foot steamer. Thirty-two feet is the average over-all length. Many of the members are officers in the Naval Reserve, while the head of the Steamboat Inspection Service and the admiral in command of the Coast Guard are always elected to the Governing Board. A number of officers of the Navy, including Rear Admiral David Foote Sellers, are honorary members of the Squadrons, helping maintain a contact between the Navy and the Power Squadrons which should be beneficial to both.
Nelson ought to be held up as a pattern for Admirals on account of the extreme pains he took to impress upon the Flag Officers and Captains the spirit of the enterprise which he proposed to undertake. Be unfolded to them his general plan of operations, and the modifications which the weather or the enemy’s movements might oblige him to qualify his original design. When once he had explained his system to the Flag or Superior Officers of his fleet, he confided to them the care of acting according to circumstances, and to place themselves in the most favorable positions for the execution of the enterprises thus planned. And Nelson, who was allowed to choose the companions of his glory, possessed the talent and the happiness to find men worthy of his instruction and confidence: they learnt, in action, to supply what had escaped his forethought, and in success to surpass even his hopes.—James, History of the Navy.