Step aboard a naval vessel these days, and you quickly see that the breadth of high-technology equipment is stunning. Navigating? It’s the province of GPS receivers and computers. Posting a lookout? That task is handled largely by satellites and sophisticated radar. The helm is highly automated. And nuclear power is the propulsion of choice.
So why bother training today’s officer candidates on sailing vessels?
The debate has been going on for decades, intensifying with each advance in shipboard technology. In the latest go-around, Vice Admiral Jeffrey L. Fowler, the U.S. Naval Academy’s superintendent from mid-2007 to August 2010, raised hackles by trimming the sail-training program there, reducing opportunities for midshipmen to take part.
Fowler argued that, especially at a time when the nation is at war, the Academy couldn’t afford to let midshipmen spend too much time on sail-training, which he viewed as little more than a sport. He said mids would be better served by doing all their training on board gray-hull warships—sometimes referred to as “grayships”—where they most likely would be assigned after they were commissioned.