Coast Guard Academy making investments to bolster seamanship

New London — Amid rough seas and thick fog, a group of Coast Guard Academy cadets are navigating Block Island Sound. A power boat and sailboat are converging just beyond them, and the cadets are debating whether to slow down or change course. They are tracking the vessels by radar and plotting their movements.

The situation isn't real, but it very well could be. Those conditions are standard during this time of year for Coast Guard boat crews in New England.

The cadets, in this case in their third year at the academy, are using a simulator designed to look like a ship's bridge. The simulators are a confidence-building tool to get cadets in the habit of navigating a ship at sea.

Afterward, the cadets debrief with their instructor, Lt. Jaimie Chicoine. Second-class Cadet Avery Gillem says she should've talked about the two vessels one at a time when informing the captain about them. The cadets didn't notice when Chicoine dropped two logs in front of them — a reminder, she said, to look around and not get "sucked into the problem." The cadets opted to make a drastic change in course, a decision Chicoine was OK with.

"You're going to be operating in and around fishing fleets, in fog, and sometimes the answer is, 'Hey, I just need to turn really far to the right and get around this whole issue and just keep a good distance,'" she said.

Each year, the academy graduates about 200 "service-ready" ensigns, the majority of whom spend their first two-year tour on a Coast Guard cutter. Many of them go on to serve in command positions just two years after graduating.

To prepare for that, the academy provides cadets a foundation of seamanship and professional maritime experience through classroom learning, ship simulators and time with operational units at sea. Once cadets graduate, their training largely comes on the job.

"The Coast Guard has always relied heavily on on-the-job training. That places a significant amount of the training burden on the operational units," said Capt. Tony Russell, chief of the academy's Professional Maritime Studies branch.

The ultimate goal is to prevent mishaps at sea. Recent maritime tragedies such as the spate of collisions involving Navy ships in the Pacific last summer, underscore what's at stake when seamanship and professionalism fail.

The Coast Guard is not immune to these deadly failures. From 1968 to 1980, the service experienced three major accidents at sea, culminating in the service's worst maritime tragedy during peacetime when the Coast Guard cutter Blackthorn collided with an oil tanker and sank on Jan. 28, 1980, in Tampa Bay, Fla. Twenty-three crew members died.

In the last two months, the academy has made substantial additions to the simulators and training vessels used to prepare cadets for life in the fleet. The academy is in the midst of a $3 million upgrade to the simulators, the first major upgrade in about 20 years.

A training vessel previously used as a survey vessel by the Army Corps of Engineers now is being used as an underway lab for cadets, including fourth-class, or freshman. This is the first time cadets are getting out on the water so early, practicing navigational skills learned in the classroom at sea — "a major accelerant to their comprehension of our teaching objectives," Russell said.

About 15 fourth-class cadets got underway Tuesday on the training vessel Shuman. On the flying bridge, Cadets John Larkin and Abby Nitz are taking bearings — marking where fixed landmarks are in relation to the vessel as it traverses the Thames River from the academy to Ledge Light and back. When the submarine USS Pittsburgh passes by, cadets are asked to take its bearings.

Down below, groups of cadets are taking turns taking down the information from Nitz and Larkin, and from the radar, plotting it on a chart, and building a navigational evaluation.

"We've basically done it all in class, on paper," Nitz said.

"In theory," Larkin chimes in. "This is actually putting it to practice."

j.bergman@theday.com

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