Master Helmsmen

PUGET SOUND (April 29, 2011) Seaman Anthony Menefee, left, from Nacodoches, Texas, and Boatswain's Mate 3rd Class Warren Nash, from Fayetteville, N.C., steers the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) as Stennis pulls out of Bremerton. John C. Stennis is underway to conduct composite training unit exercises off the coast of southern California. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class (SW) Kenneth Abbate/Released)

Story by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kevin Murphy
USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) Public Affairs

In baseball, managers call on their top pitchers to perform in big games. Aboard USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) the captain calls on his top helmsman to perform during an underway replenishment (UNREP).

Stennis’ Navigation department’s three qualified Master Helmsman steer Stennis during an UNREP so it can be supplied, fueled and armed.

“Very few people have the qualification,” said Quartermaster 3rd Class Doris Hill. “I got qualified November 2009. People notice the red hat that a Master Helmsman wears. When I first got qualified and I pulled next to another ship for an [UNREP], I got nervous.”

“It’s a very stressful evolution,” said Quartermaster 3rd Class (SW) Warren Nash. “You have to anticipate the movement of the ship and have a feel for the ocean.”

During an UNREP, Stennis steams alongside another naval ship approximately 180 to 200 yards from its side. The master helmsman can’t move the ship more than .3 degrees off course. Nash said that this is the time he can feel the most stress on the bridge.

“The hardest part is when the [UNREP] actually starts, and the ships are connecting equipment and lines. I try to remain relaxed and keep focused,” said Nash.

“I get nervous because the other ship is so close,” said Hill. “The part I hate is that if I mess up everybody will know. I can cause damage to equipment and personnel.”

Communication between the master helmsman and the conning officer, who communicates orders to the helmsman, is an integral part of completing a successful UNREP and avoiding an accident. Master helmsmen repeat back all orders directed to them for clarification.

“You have to be loud and precise with repeat backs. If communication messes up, it can become an instant problem,” said Hill.

Nash said during long evolutions, master helmsman will rotate with each other during the same evolution.

“One time we had an [UNREP] which lasted 6 to 7 hours, so we had to switch each other out on the helm to keep things safe,” said Nash.

Master helmsmen attend replenishment at sea briefs to mentally prepare themselves for an upcoming evolution.

“Most of the time we will know a day prior if we will be on the helm for replenishment at sea,” said Hill. “I try to eat a little snack before I go on and after the first couple calls and repeat backs I feel comfortable.”

Stennis practices an emergency breakaway after each UNREP. After the ships disconnect their lines, Stennis speeds up to 30 knots and when it passes the replenishment ship Stennis completes a port turn.

“The stern of our ship must clear the bow of the other before we turn,” said Nash. “I am very relaxed after a breakaway. UNREP’s are stressful for the officers as well, so when it’s done there’s a sense of relief.”

“It’s nice getting praise from the CO,” said Hill. “When someone looks you in the eye and says good job, it nice to hear good feedback.”

An UNREP isn’t the only time master helmsmen drive the ship. During steering causalities, general quarters and pulling into ports, master helmsman are ready to take the wheel.

“It’s kind of cool telling family and friends I drive a carrier,” said Hill, who worked at Safeway before she joined the Navy. “I used to hate driving the ship because I was horrible at it, but now there’s a little pride there.”

“It was a big accomplishment becoming a master helmsman, it proves we’re the best drivers and can deal with stressful situations,” said Nash.

Just like baseball pitchers battle stress and pressure on the mound, master helmsmen deal with stress and pressure on the helm, performing the best they can to keep Stennis safe during precision navigation evolutions.