All of us agree that the officer of the deck training is of paramount importance in the shipboard education of an officer. The officer of the deck is by definition the officer on watch in charge of the ship. It therefore follows that his training as O.O.D. fits him better for command than any other single duty. That is why it is vital that we train good O.O.D.’s. If you are content with an officer who can handle only routine functions on the bridge today, tomorrow he will become a mediocre and apologetic commanding officer. In keeping with this thought, the writer believes that the best and simplest part of any training program for the bridge watch officer is to make him keep the conn.
The fully qualified officer of the deck should be able to handle the ship during any evolution which the ship may be called upon to do in accomplishing her mission. He should be able to get the ship underway from a dock or alongside another ship. Similarly he should be able to bring it back into the harbor and alongside a nest or to its own buoy. At sea he should be able to conn the ship alongside another for high-line transfer or replenishment, and he should be able to maneuver the ship as required in a formation. Is this a large order? Perhaps it is, but only when the officer can do these things is he of maximum benefit to the captain on the bridge. And if he has developed the judgement and acquired the experience to perform the more difficult evolutions, he will certainly be able to stand a routine watch. This is important because the thoroughly qualified O.O.D. will not be caught unprepared by a crisis on an otherwise routine watch. The yardstick which some captains use in deciding how well qualified an officer really is to keep a watch on the bridge is to determine how soundly he can permit himself to sleep when the officer in question has the deck. No doubt all captains find the same thing to be true, but are at first surprised to find that at night when at sea he will waken several times during any watch being stood by a new or recently assigned officer of the deck.
The reason the writer is insistent that an officer be fully qualified to have the conn at all times is that one morning several years ago he awoke with orders to take command of an LST, but he was without any alongside conning experience. He had been sea-detail officer of the deck of a destroyer for a year and had always been relieved of the conn when the ship was inside the sea-buoy. When the morning came that the LST had to get underway, he had only his sailboat experience to fall back upon. It happened that that particular morning was allotted to conducting exercises—one of which was for the duty section to get the ship underway. So the executive officer—also new—had the dubious distinction of taking the conn. His knowledge of shiphandling was, like the captain’s, acquired only through observation. Surprisingly enough, he got the ship away from the dock without damage, and, even more miraculously, the skipper returned it to the berth without harm.
After the ship became accustomed to her new captain, he started the practice of having the officer with the day’s duty take the deck getting underway and assuming it again upon return to the sea-buoy. This is common procedure aboard submarines, but generally not seen elsewhere. The first time or two it was necessary to relieve the O.O.D. of the conn upon occasion. After a while that became a very rare occurrence, and finally one or two suggestions were all that was required. In the end even suggestions became unusual. As a consequence, the officers developed a good sense of responsibility which eased the captain’s burden and also fitted them better for their next assignment.
Navy Regulations require that, “the commanding officer . . . shall afford frequent opportunities to the executive officer, and to other officers ... to improve their skill in ship handling.” But the captain who observes only the letter of the law in this respect and does not give all his department heads and bridge watch officers adequate chance to get the feel of the ship is robbing both himself and them of a chance to increase their professional skill. There are many ways to skin a cat. All of us have our own preferred ways of coming alongside under varying conditions, making an approach on another ship at sea, and performing the other usual evolutions. When we watch others—and find that they do not make a mess of it—we learn. This is particularly true of the captain because he is responsible irrespective of who has the conn. This is because he must be able to anticipate what action on the part of the officer of the deck will give rise to a serious situation and must judge correctly the last possible moment at which he himself must take corrective action to pull the fat out of the fire. Because he has more at stake than the other observers, it is particularly difficult for the captain to keep silent. The captain learns more than he would if he always retained the conn because he sees methods and approaches tried which he himself would not use, and he finds that frequently they are just as good as his own solution to the problem.
When my present ship, which has a complement of six officers, finished a tour in the Far East in July, 1952, it was possible to list four officers other than the captain as qualified for command. The only officer not so listed was the engineer officer, who in private life was a licensed engineer in the merchant marine and who preferred to insure staying in his specialty. He, though, stood a good and an alert deck watch. This large percentage of “graduates” was the natural result of the aptitude of the officers themselves together with full advantage being taken of the extensive operating. As on the LST, the officer who happened to have the deck when the signal was received to come alongside for mail kept the conn until the transfer was completed. The First Lieutenant, a lad from the simple cow town of Las Vegas, become one of the best ship- handlers simply because he frequently happened to have a busy watch. The engineer developed into a creditable O.O.D., but was very reluctant to bring the ship alongside. Just before the ship left the Korean Coast for the last time the captain did achieve a partial victory over the engineer. The ship had been alongside a British Royal Fleet auxiliary tanker in a sheltered anchorage for fuel, and the chief had gotten a spot of tea in the tanker’s wardroom. Thus fortified, he had no difficulty in getting us underway.
Captain Stroop’s article, “Training Officers of the Deck, Carrier Style,” in the December, 1952, Proceedings, shows what progress can be made aboard a ship when the captain insist that the officer of the deck do more than keep station, write the log, and wear binoculars. Conning the ship in a formation or in a restricted harbor is the most fascinating game in the Navy. The entire complement including the messcooks like to see their ship brought alongside smartly, and their pride is increased if their division officer has the conn. Similarly, it is a source of satisfaction for the captain to be able to watch his own ship come alongside for replenishment without having to move from his captain’s chair. If he can achieve this he has a fine bridge organization, and if the occasion should arise that a ship must get underway in an emergency without him aboard, there will be capable shiphandlers to rise to the occasion. And most important, when the officer of the deck is detached and gets his own command, he will be able to take over his new ship with assurance and confidence.