I had the honor of serving as navigator of a tall ship—and not just any tall ship. It was the Coast Guard Barque Eagle, the only fully operational sailing vessel commissioned in U.S. government service.
I was assigned to the Eagle for two years, sailing thousands of miles while training the future leaders of the Coast Guard in an unparalleled at-sea leadership classroom. With a great crew and under the watchful eye of a great captain, we accomplished our mission with professionalism, determination, and enthusiasm. Things did not always go as planned, of course. One incident in particular taught me about operational leadership in a way few other experiences have.
Avoiding the Storm
The Eagle was at her berth on the Thames River in New London, Connecticut, in August 2011 as Tropical Storm Irene bore down on the New England coast. With the onset of tropical-storm-force winds and a semi-exposed berth at the southern portion of the river, we had three options: stay at our current berth, move upriver to storm moorings at Naval Submarine Base New London, or head to sea. After a careful analysis of forecasted conditions, the Eagle’s captain decided the best course was moving the vessel to her storm moorings.
The short transit required the Eagle to pass under both the Gold Star Bridge and a newly constructed railroad lift bridge. The two bridges are separated by only a few yards, and each has a charted height of 135 feet. The Eagle’s masthead when “stepped” to its lowest configuration is 132 feet. This small delta makes the transit precarious but easily manageable. At the time, however, the Eagle had never been beneath the railroad lift bridge.
In preparation for the transit, I consulted the applicable tide and current tables and determined the optimal time for our transit to allow for maximum vertical clearance. Next, I called the lift bridge operator to request the bridge be opened in advance of our scheduled transit time. The operator acknowledged our request and said the bridge would be at “full open” (135 feet) on our arrival. Since charted bridge heights are calculated from the average of all high-water heights in that location over the National Tidal Datum Epoch, and we would be transiting at low tide, I calculated we would have approximately six feet of clearance between our masts and the two bridges.
On the morning of the transit, the ship’s company made normal preparations to get under way. The transit plan had been reviewed and approved by the Eagle’s executive officer and captain, and I made one final check of the tide and current tables before heading to the bridge. Our departure from the pier was seamless, and we headed upriver. The railroad lift bridge operator had the bridge open on time and confirmed the bridge was full open. With this confirmation, we approached the first bridge.
When standing on deck of a large sailing vessel and looking 135 feet in the air, you lack the necessary depth perception to see things accurately. You must simply focus on guiding the vessel under the highest point of the bridge and trust that your vertical clearance calculations are correct. What you take for granted is that the bridge is actually as tall as the chart says it is.
As the Eagle began to pass under the raised railroad lift bridge, I heard a loud cracking sound, followed by the shattering of glass, as the foremast passed beneath the first rail of the bridge. I recall a small jolt as we struck the bridge, but the Eagle kept moving forward.
U.S. Coast Guard (Etta Smith)
As a barque-rigged vessel, the Eagle has three masts. That meant the mainmast and mizzenmast still had to pass beneath the bridge. We were making about six knots under power, so there were a few seconds between the foremast strike and when the mainmast would pass under the bridge. I exchanged looks with the captain, who intimated not to panic and to keep the engine engaged ahead. I held my breath as the mainmast and mizzenmast passed under without incident.
The relief was momentary, however, since we still had to pass under the Gold Star Bridge. Again, I looked to the captain. His eyes were fixed upward at the bridge, and his expression was stoic. He didn’t exude panic or alarm. We passed safely under and made our way to our mooring at the submarine base.
Upon inspection, we learned that the Eagle’s sailing light, the highest point of the vessel, had allided with the bridge, broken off on impact, and shattered.1 Repairing the masthead light would be relatively easy and inexpensive. Had the tide been three inches higher, the mast itself would have struck the bridge, likely causing extensive damage to the Eagle and potentially grievous harm to the crew on the deck below.
Despite the captain’s calm, I immediately began second-guessing my tide calculations, wondering if I had put the ship and crew in danger with a careless mistake. I found the captain on the bridge wing and told him I didn’t know what happened. I had done the vertical clearance calculation several times and believed I had provided him with accurate information. Rather than berate me over what he reasonably could have suspected were my poor mathematical skills, he responded with grace and said he believed my calculation had been accurate and we needed to figure out the reason for the mishap.
Had there been a tidal surge? If so, why did we pass under the second bridge so easily? Was the mast not stepped properly? That was unlikely: because of the way the mast sits in place when stepped, a discrepancy would have been obvious. Was it possible the bridge operator hadn’t opened the bridge correctly? These questions would keep me up at night until the investigation was completed.
When we were safely to our mooring, I immediately visited the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tidal data website. The closest tidal station was at the base of the Gold Star Bridge, which gave me a very accurate picture of the tide level the moment we passed under the two bridges. I was relieved that the tidal data indicated we had transited within three minutes of the lowest point of tide, but I was now more determined to figure out what went wrong.
Several phone calls and emails to the appropriate authorities and, a few days later, I was permitted to visit the control station of the railroad lift bridge. I rode on the lift bridge with the operator, who brought the bridge to full open. I checked the gauges in the control room and verified that they read 135 feet when the bridge was fully raised. I also had coordinated with the railroad operator to have bridge surveyors measure the height of the bridge when in the full open position. To my surprise, the surveyors determined the bridge raised only to 129 feet.
I later learned some of the counterweights used to lift the bridge were not calibrated properly. The resulting error gave the bridge operator a false reading, indicating the bridge was at 135 feet high when, in fact, it was well short. Several days later the bridge defect was remedied, and we transited back downriver uneventfully.
There are several lessons I took from this incident:
Lesson One: A Leader’s Actions during a Crisis Set the Tone and Determine the Effectiveness of the Response.
The captain’s calm demeanor set the tone, not only for the bridge team, but also for the crew on deck looking to the bridge for direction. Unlike modern military vessels, the Eagle’s bridge is located aft and is exposed to the weather—crew members on the weather decks can see the captain and will take their cues from him. The day of the allision, as the captain remain focused and calm, it was both reassuring and an indication for them to do the same. I believe the “snowball effect” of errors that results in mishaps was averted mainly because the captain did not show signs of panic or fear.
Lesson Two: “Trust but Verify” Is Not Just a Cliché.
I believe the reason the captain did not immediately question my calculations and turn to me in anger was because he had done his own independent vertical clearance calculations before the transit. While I take pride in my navigational prowess, I never viewed this system of checks and balances as an affront to my ability. Rather, as this incident made clear, the captain’s own preparation paid dividends because it kept him from wasting valuable time and attention on his navigator’s perceived shortcomings and instead enabled him to focus on executing the mission and overcoming the mishap.
Lesson Three: Even a Well-Thought-Out Plan Occasionally Will Fail.
By most standards, we executed our transit plan to near perfection, yet we still encountered problems. The boxer Mike Tyson is credited with saying “Everyone has a plan until you punch them in the mouth,” meaning most people lose their sense of direction and abandon their plan at the first sign of trouble. In this case, we had a well-executed plan, but our “punch in the mouth” was the bridge being out of calibration.
The Eagle’s bridge allision was not catastrophic because we had planned the transit down to the minute. Had we not taken care to give ourselves maximum vertical clearance by transiting at low tide, the foremast itself would have slammed into the bridge. A three-inch difference in height of tide could have changed the lives and careers of many people on board the Eagle that day. Because we had a plan and executed it properly, coupled with the captain’s steadfast leadership, we took our punch in the mouth and moved on to complete the mission. Dwight Eisenhower summed up this approach best, saying, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”2
1. An “allision” is when a ship strikes a fixed object. The term often is incorrectly used as interchangeable with “collision,” which involves two moving objects. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of Response and Restoration, “You Say Allision, I Say Collision; Let’s Sort the Whole Thing Out,” 16 July 2014.
2. ADM James Stavridis, USN (Ret.), The Accidental Admiral (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2014), 155.
Lieutenant Commander Janaro is a Coast Guard cutterman and judge advocate who has served on board four Coast Guard cutters, commanding two. He served as operations officer and navigator of the USCG Barque Eagle and as a navigation instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is a graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the George Washington University Law School.