Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Feedback on HORNET - the NHS command model

The first critical item of discussion aboard NIAGARA last week was the operation of HORNET under a military system, and the planned command model.  Among all of the preparations this is perhaps the most controversial facet of all.  For active duty sea service folks, this comes as no particular surprise, but for the civilian sail training community - as much as they want to say it isn't - this is a game changer.  After all, the last military-run sail training ships left service more than a century ago - the era of naval discipline under the square rig is all but forgotten in actual practice. 

Today aboard most ships, the officers are called and referred to by their first names (except in most cases the master, who is called captain or skipper) and nary a 'sir' or 'ma'am' is heard, and it isn't unusual for the officers to mix and mingle with the crew both on the ship and during off time.  And while most get along just fine without it, including NIAGARA (which is often cited as being more organized than many), there is an intangible benefit to be derived from naval discipline - which is often displayed on the Navy's better ships - that not only brings a crew together but drives them onward, motivating them and instilling a sense of tremendous pride that can best be described as a fighting spirit.  Hornet's crew has to set that bar highest of all - all eyes, even in the Navy's Atlantic Fleet - will be on her wherever she goes.  Anything less will ring false to the active Sailors we know we're going to meet, and in many cases cater to.  And none of this mentions the simple fact that onboard a Navy ship - even a mock-Navy ship like Hornet - it is what spectators and participants will expect to see.  But in an era when many of Hornet's crew will never have served in the military - how do we do this?  That's what we're working out, and NIAGARA's crew had some interesting feedback.

First, the obvious - the crew must adhere to a very rigid chain of command.  So today's entry will cover the generalities of the model with respect to ranks and responsibilities, and some of the comments and criticism from NIAGARA's officers and crew.

Aboard HORNET, Ordinary Seamen (OSs) and Able Seamen (ABs) by USCG ratings will be ranked slightly differently.  All ABs and OSs in Hornet's crew will enter onboard as Ordinary Seamen by NHS rating until such time as they pass a rudimentary examination in the elements specific to the ship and established procedures.  When this exam is passed, the Ordinary Seamen are automatically advanced to Able Seamen by NHS rating - the lowest functional rank in the regular professional crew.  Each is expected to answer all of the basic functions of the deck and aloft (climbing, for the professional crew, is not optional).  And because Hornet is a training ship each must be an educator as well - in port they will interact with the public leading tours, and during underway programming they will each be assigned as many as five 'participants' or paying customers to teach and supervise.  During overnight cruises this ratio drops to 2:1, max.  In the Navy these are referred to as 'running mates', and it will permit our participants a much more tailored experience. 

Now go back to the break, where the Ordinary Seamen graduate to Able Seamen.  Some, with a USCG AB ticket might be advanced to Petty Officer by NHS rating, meaning that in addition to their normal seamanship duties they become apprenticed to a warrant officer.  Those apprenticed to the ship's Boatswain are Boatswain's Mates, those for the Gunner are Gunner's Mates.  The compliment is rounded out with a total of eight Petty Officers: three Boatswain's Mates (one of which is also a sailmaker), two Gunner's Mates, one Carpenter's Mate and two Quartermasters.  These are ranked above the Able Seamen, and charged with leading groups of them both on watch and in maintenance.  The duality of their presumably advanced seamanship skills, coupled with their specific trade, or 'in-rate' skills, mean they will serve as higher-level go-to people for everyday concerns beyond routine conditions.

Above the ranks of Ordinary Seamen, Able Seamen and Petty Officers are a stalwart and all-knowing team of professional experts.  These are Hornet's Warrant Officers - masters of their discipline, ever vigilant to the condition of the ship and all-knowing in the means of keeping her in top condition and operating properly.  They consist of the ship's Boatswain, Gunner, Carpenter and Sailing Master - the latter being one source of consternation for civilian sail training professionals, but we will get to that in a minute.  Warrant Officers each get their own private cabin, which although still spartan affords them a greater measure of privacy than the rank Seamen and Petty Officers. The Sailing Master is the most experienced sailor onboard, and has an elevated status above the others, sharing accommodations with the ship's Commissioned Officers in the Wardroom.

Overseeing the Warrant Officers, and supervising the 'people' of the ship, to use an historic phrase, are the Commissioned Officers.  Three Lieutenants and a Master Commandant - the ship's Commanding Officer - round out this compliment.   The Lieutenants are assigned to take charge of one division, assembled under the ship's warrant officers - the First Lieutenant with the Boatswain, their mates, and Seamen assigned to First Division; the Second Lieutenant with the Carpenter and Gunner with their Petty Officers and Seamen grouped together; the Third Lieutenant with the Sailing Master and their Petty Officers and Seamen.  Each is responsible for the personal and professional comfort and development of the subordinates in their division.  They also stand regular deck watches as licensed mates, aboard Hornet a position known in the Navy as Officer of the Deck (OOD)

The Commanding Officer is responsible for the whole program, both afloat and ashore - dictating schedules, hiring and managing crew, and making arrangements and plans for the ship's port visits and all associated logistical requirements.  Not that he has to handle all of this on his own - by delegating various duties to the necessary Lieutenants he can ensure that each facet gets proper attention, and the whole operation runs smoothly.  Many of these are routed to the Sailing Master for final approval before execution, but the CO is the principle authority responsible to the NHS Board of Directors for the conduct of the ship and programming.


Now - the source of occasional consternation in some circles - the licensed Master and the Commanding Officer are two separate and distinct people.  The Sailing Master is the licensed Master of the ship - responsible for her safe navigation and handling, the safety of her crew, and for all intents and purposes her Captain aboard Hornet in all but name.  But in the eyes and perception of the crew and the public - he is subordinate to the Captain.  If you can't hear it where you are - there is a resounding whoa no you don't coming from the licensed sail trainers out there.  Hornet's Commanding Officer is known as her Captain - who may be similarly licensed but will never be her registered Master.  Rather, the Commanding Officer acts more as an Owner's Agent onboard, in duties we've already covered. Many programs have a person in this position who is based ashore.  However, by keeping them intimately connected to - ie onboard - the ship itself, they are in the best possible position to make managerial decisions with the best interest of the ship and crew in mind.  Again, remember that personal and professional development piece. 

Aside from the fact that the arrangement is historically correct (an objection of the Sailing Master was required to be noted in the log and almost always factored against a CO in the event of a mishap), the arrangement creates a functional check-and-balance at the top of Hornet's hierarchy.  The Sailing Master can overrule the Commanding Officer at any time - BUT the Commanding Officer holds the ship's purse strings and hiring and firing authority over the whole crew - including the Sailing Master.  The result is intended to be a close partnership between administration and operational leadership - all onboard the ship - whereby the Sailing Master can focus on navigating and sailing the ship, while the Commanding Officer attends the administration.  A little cross-training - expected in the partnership - allows both to advance professionally and expand their individual areas of expertise.  With the right people - or rather personalities - in these positions, the ship's focus will remain on training and operations will progress with remarkable efficiency.

It also has the benefit that while we expect a 'Navy' like operation of the ship, complete with honors, ceremonies, boatswain's pipes, rigid daily schedules and formal address, these are foreign elements in sail training - as I've mentioned before.  There are very few Sailing Masters familiar with the finer points of this system.  Likewise there are very few former active Navy COs with sailing experience.  Command, yes - sailing, no.  The two feeding off of each other will provide the best basis for a system that makes the best of both worlds.


NIAGARA's officers and crew expressed some of the commonly held opinions on this subject - first of which that there is only ONE captain of a ship, and confusion of that chain such as we propose is potentially dangerous - from the aspect that the crew might not know who to obey at any given time.  My response to that point is that a good CO of HORNET would know that he is not to give orders to the crew where navigation and safety are concerned.  Furthermore, he should limit his orders and instructions only to the Sailing Master, to whom they are more recommendations, open for discussion and mitigation under the Master's professional knowledge base.  A Navy CO is always aware that his actions are under close scrutiny, and the comparatively large crews mean that giving direct orders to lower subordinates almost always confuses and complicates an otherwise clear chain of command.  Those that I've seen violate this are usually held in some form of contempt by their officers and crews.  The chain of command exists for the benefit of all, even those at the top.  This system forces that - morally and legally - as the Sailing Master is the only person legally allowed to give those sorts of orders.

Another objection was that no experienced master would take on a job like this - knowing he would be technically subordinate on his own ship.  Sorry guys, wrong again.  Everybody - including the Captain of Niagara - has superiors.  It isn't his ship to do with as he pleases - the owners have specific instructions and more often than not an interest in how the ship is run.  But where that office/ship relationship is strained because of distance and detachment, we're seeking to put both in the same place aboard Hornet.  Existing professionals may balk at this - wanting more freedom to strut their own deck unimpeded by the office, even if only occasionally - but as was conceded by many officers aboard Niagara, younger up-and-coming professionals would be more willing to see this for the development opportunity that it is, rather than a burden.

I should also point out, without any feeling of or implied derision whatsoever, that the licensed masters who are working aboard tall ships right now cling to those sacred few jobs desperately - creating stagnation in the upward progression of many deserving officers with licenses who may never get their chance to lead while they still have the requisite energy.  Not that I blame them - it seems that once one reaches that point there are relatively few professional options open in such a small field.  In that light - give me the young, the hungry, the energetic leaders who still have something to learn.  Hornet, if a training ship, must be focused on that, even at the top, and a Master who has nothing to learn himself need not apply for the post.  After all, the CO, by virtue of his limited authority, is relegated to receiving from the Master all the training he can get.


Additional comment was made on the proposed military system.  The points on crew discipline (not punishment - that's different) were thought to be a possible source of contention amongst sail training professionals who would balk at such rigidity and formality.  Some did also comment, however, that once word of the program's efficiency gets out, we won't have a problem recruiting the best of the sailing world.  All conceded that the system did not seem as overbearing or taxing on the crew as originally thought.  After all, the overarching function of this system on the ship is to make life easier and more predictable for her crew, while maximizing their efforts on the maintenance, upkeep and performance of the ship.

My response is similar to that of the similar objection to the master - there are a very limited number of billets aboard sail training ships, and we're expecting no shortage of applicants.  The process of indoctrination will undoubtedly filter out any dissenters or folks who feel over their head, and we are left with the best crew possible.  There will undoubtedly be growing pains, but that is to be expected.  And I will be the first to admit that the system is yet to see its first real test of functionality - and will undoubtedly develop as we go on.

In a future entry, I'll continue the abstract with notes about military watchstanding, professional advancement, ship's work and reporting procedures in the HORNET Command Model - all of which have significant bearing on why we're planning operations in this way.


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