Leave it to the Navy to develop and run a sailing program delivering 18,000 student hours to 1,200 freshmen Midshipmen during six weeks every summer. Naval Academy Basic Sail Training Director Joni Palmer, likens the program to a “well-oiled and orchestrated machine.” She credits the program’s success to the Navy’s chain of command that includes a dedicated sailing staff, twenty civilian instructors, thirty-six newly commissioned Ensigns, an impeccably maintained fleet of Navy 26 keelboats and safety boats, and a commitment to an ever-evolving program.
Plebe Summer is the summer training program for the incoming class at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Each year around July 1, approximately 1,200 Plebes arrive for a six-week rite of passage designed to “turn civilians into midshipmen.” Plebes are divided into thirty platoons, sized up, and issued everything from haircuts, to uniforms, and books. Every minute of their lives from the time they arrive on campus Induction Day through the end of their indoctrination period is filled. Among the rigors of Plebe Summer are calisthenics, shooting firearms, swimming, lectures, and sailing.
The vast majority of Plebes have never sailed and have had very limited experience with being on the water. “Even those who have experience are like deer in the headlights when they show up,” says LT Dan DeMatteo, Operations Officer for the program. He continues, “They’ve had their world rocked. Plebe Summer is a completely new experience designed to change their lifestyle and introduce them to a maritime environment. Perfectionists learn humility.”
Plebes perk up when they find out it’s sailing day. They shed their crisp white shirts, sailor pants, running shoes, and Dixie cup cover in favor of their sailing class uniform – Navy-issue T-shirt, shorts, boat shoes, and Naval Academy ball cap. Plebes are assigned to one of the Academy’s fleet of thirty Navy 26 keelboats, each commanded by an Ensign.
The instructors are newly graduated Ensigns preparing to go to flight school. Many of the Ensigns have not sailed since their Plebe Summer course four years earlier but “They are smart, athletic, and self-motivated leaders who love challenges,” says Palmer. Upon assignment to the sailing center, the Ensigns take an intensive three-week sailing program from U.S. Sailing Basic Keelboat instructors. With a 2:1 ratio of Ensigns to instructors, the Ensigns re-learn to sail the first week and they learn to teach sailing the second week. By week three they are ready to implement Plebe Summer sailing and run the 1,200 Plebes through the first of five sailing modules.
Module 1 – rigging, unrigging, safety procedures, and first sail;
Module 2 – Tacking, reaching and returning to the dock;
Module 3 – Gybing and basic maneuvers;
Module 4 – Man overboard;
Module 5 – Consolidation of all sailing skills and a written exam.
Aboard the Navy 26s with the Plebes, the Ensigns are always within reach of the tiller and the mainsheet. Four inflatable powerboats, safety officers on the docks ready to catch lines and Palmer and DeMatteo staying abreast of all of the moving parts, timing, and the weather contribute to making the sailing component of Plebe Summer safe, fun and rewarding. Those who keep their wits about them, listen, learn and absorb the material, and score 80 percent or better on the final written test, can be on their way to a modified Provisional Skipper Qualification, enabling them to take the Navy 26s out with others having the same qualifications or more experience.
Palmer proudly states, “There’s no place else in the world that you can conduct a sail training program of this magnitude with instructors that, in just a few weeks, also have to learn to sail and then learn to teach sailing. The U. S. Naval Academy Ensigns are great leaders who take this role seriously. Everyone involved takes Plebe Summer sailing seriously. By paying attention to every detail we hope we make the Plebes and the Ensigns comfortable with the marine environment, the Academy, and their new roles.”