On a ship, you quickly learn to always project confidence. It will be part of the feedback you receive on your first mock qualification board: “Answer like you are certain, even if you are not.” You will hear it from a department head or a second-tour mentor: “If you want your sailors to trust you, you have got to act like you are sure of yourself first.” You may encounter a more cynical thought—whispered in the bitter corners of your head or passed around among other junior officers—that after being thrust into a technical job with no specialized training, the only way to keep a scrap of credibility is to spackle over the gaps in your knowledge with the clean, bright shine of self-assuredness. Others will simply call it military bearing. Invented confidence has its perils.
Fake It Until You Make It
I am a fast learner at most things. By the time I made it to my second tour at sea as a damage control assistant (DCA), I exuded absolute confidence. I spewed confidence through the general announcing system during fire drills. I dripped confidence from my pores as I toured my spaces. I radiated a clean, warm glow of confidence every time I stepped into the captain’s office. At the end of the day, if I wrung out my coveralls over a five-gallon bucket, I would collect enough pure liquid confidence to swab the entire main deck. This approach worked for me. Sailors already expect a certain amount of swagger from a damage control team, and I met and exceeded those expectations. I saw the results in the faces of my peers and on my fitness reports.
My confidence at leading shipwide evolutions with lots of moving parts was unquestioned. Less than a year into my DCA tour, we commenced a compressed two-day schedule to test a wide range of systems in preparation for an important upcoming inspection. Damage control division would be responsible, among other things, for shooting firefighting foam from every discharge point on the ship. Based on the ship’s tight schedule, there would be only a brief window in which we would be far enough from land to be allowed to wash the chemical foam into the sea and flush our bilges before needing to turn back toward Puget Sound.
The division first sprayed all the hoses and sprinklers that were inside the ship. The foam stank like spoiled food and clung to the bilges and bulkheads—left alone, it would eat at the paint, corrode the metal, and turn the stomach of anyone standing watch in the engine room. Our cleanup teams had to flush the entire area with fire hoses. The whole process ran flawlessly. Our team moved compartment to compartment exactly on schedule, our reports and orders crisp over the radio.
It was winter, and dusk was just beginning to settle around us as we began testing the nozzles outside the ship. Testing the deck nozzles and hoses on the flight deck went smoothly. As we moved to our last station on the forecastle of the ship the wind was sharp across the bow with waves cresting just below the gunnels. Our final test was the forward vertical resupply (VertRep) station—a small painted-off box—just a few feet behind the sloping prow of the ship, where helicopters can drop cargo in the rare event that the flight deck cannot be used.
The order went out and the nozzles sputtered to life, gurgling out rivulets of foam rather than jets and sprays—a clog. I watched as a sailor stabbed into the nozzles with a large flat-tip screwdriver until the clog was free. He turned, giving a thumbs up to the bridge before heading down. The nozzles ran a while longer, this time flushing the line with pure seawater to try and wash away the foam. I turned off my radio, nearly dead from the long day, and started to head down below. Confidence seemed to be paying off again.
Over Confidence Can Be Catastrophic
“DCA?” the executive officer (XO) said, waving me over to his chair on the bridge. “What’s the plan for washing that off? That stuff is corrosive, right?” He pointed down toward the forecastle, and I saw that the seawater flush had not done much. The VertRep station itself was clean, but a thick wall of viscous foam was still slowly rolling down the deck.
The key to confidence? Assume responsibility immediately and always promise results.
“I guess the flush did not work, sir,” I said to the XO. “We will get hoses on it pronto.” Naturally, I went and found my chief first. As I explained the problem and the fact that I needed another hose team, he shook his head. Everyone was still busy cleaning up and stowing gear. He advised me to wait for the weather to blow the problem away. Out of the open hangar door I could see the sun starting to set behind the ship. We were heading into twilight and steaming east, toward home.
I caught my senior damage controlman and asked if he could wrangle three or four spare sailors for a hose team. “Everyone’s still busy, sir,” he said, scanning the work in the hangar. “Wait, you can probably grab Smith—he is just sitting around. Maybe see if you can find anyone else down in the engine rooms.” He called Fireman Smith over and, as the two of us headed out of the hangar, I heard “darken ship” announced over the loudspeaker. The sun had set. I was agitated and did not plan on wasting any more time. Going topside after dark required permission, so I called up to the bridge from my office to ask to send a hose team on the forecastle.
“Cool,” the officer of the deck said. “I’ll need the names of everyone going out.”
“Smith and myself,” I said. There was a pause at the other end of the line.
“That’s it?” he said.
“It’s enough to man a hose,” I said. Another, longer pause.
“I am going to need you all to grab some life jackets on your way out,” he said, and hung up. With Smith in tow, I grabbed a pair of red Mk1 life jackets from the boatswain’s locker, cracking the glowstick on each, and headed topside. We walked out first through the port side break, where all the smokers gathered after dark, interrupting their conversations to watch whatever strange business was going on. I pushed open the hatch to the forecastle and the wind grabbed it, crashing it on its hinges.
The darkness of the sea at night can be complete and absolute. You can manage to see to the edge of your ship, but the world just falls away after that. The weather had darkened as well. Turning to steam back toward land, we had caught the wind, and the waves were kicking up. As we fumbled to unfurl the fire hose in the dark, the spray from a wave cresting just above the decks soaked our hair.
“Take the nozzle and run it up forward,” I ordered, heaving the extra hose off the rack. He dragged the hose up past the missile hatches, looked back, and I opened the valve. As the hose came alive in front of us, I realized another mistake. The forecastle’s fire hoses were different than other hoses on the ship, nearly twice as wide around and designed for teams of at least four people. I tried to lift a kinked section of the hose as I headed toward Smith, straining my back and accomplishing nothing before continuing on. I fit my forearm against the small of his back and bent my knees, ready to brace, before tapping him on the shoulder—ready when you are. He opened the nozzle and we both staggered back, almost losing hold of the hose on the spot.
Struggling to gain control, the force far greater than what we had trained on before and the wind against us, we both crouched lower until Smith was all but sitting on my knee. We could barely aim the hose, and the wind sliced right through the stream, turning it to spray just a foot in front of us. Smith wore glasses, and I realized they were already covered with salt. With the hose so heavy, we had to close the nozzle each time we needed to take just a few steps. Moving the hose was like push-starting a car uphill, and each time I could feel myself losing some of the finite amount of strength I had left. It was hard to see anything at all, but after ten minutes I judged we had maybe washed off about half of the remaining foam.
“That’s all we can get,” I said to the bridge over my radio, cupping my hands and talking into my shirt collar as the storm thickened around us. “The weather’s gotten too bad.” I dropped the hose, made my way carefully back to the fireplug as the ship bucked in the waves, and closed the valve. My hands were numb from the cold, and it took longer than I had hoped. Suddenly, there was a crash as a nearby hatch opened. The senior damage controlman, flanked by three other sailors, came out of the dimly lit hatch, having caught the broken conversation on the radio.
He looked at the massive hose, and at the soaked and nearly numb sailor holding the nozzle. “Sir,” he said, firm, but a quake in his voice somewhere between fear and anger, “what in the hell are you doing?” I felt all the confidence I ever had drain out of me, dripping out on the deck alongside my salt-drenched coveralls.
I wish this were the story of a sailor who inspired me or a learning opportunity that has made me prouder and more capable, but it is not. It is a story about how my overconfidence got the better of me, and how I risked my life and that of a shipmate. It is a story of how I learned a hard lesson. This is the story that every time I remember it, every time I feel it creep up my spine into the back of my mind, I feel a rush of guilt, and of shame, and of weakness. It is the story of how I took a sailor to handle heavy equipment in the pitch dark during a storm because of a stupid assurance I made. It is the story of how I almost killed someone.
I nearly walked away from the incident fine. I accomplished what I set out to do, more or less. I took control of the situation with gusto. My peers on the bridge saw me leading from the front like some kind of action hero. But instead, I looked for a brief moment at what had almost happened, I handed the senior damage controlman the spanner, and I felt myself all but sink into the corner, staring down at my boots.
Humility Underpins True Confidence
A few months later, a peer on a different ship would make a series of errors that ultimately killed seven sailors. Our trade is fraught with danger. It is easy to think bravado and bold actions are the right choices—confidence earns respect, after all, and respect earns promotion. What our service demands, however, is less manufactured confidence and more humility. With lives resting on our choices, we are called to be thoughtful, sober, and deliberate in our decision-making, free to express our uncertainties and misgivings, and bold enough to ask for advice. We have to share lessons of our failures and our near-misses with our peers without fear of the damage it may do to our image. Instead of proudly displaying false confidence, we must have the true confidence to voice and work through our uncertainties.
Editor’s note: Some names and rates have been altered for privacy.