Monday Minute - An Admiral's Secret to Running A Ship

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I participated over the weekend in the 11th Recovering Warrior Sailing Regatta in Annapolis. Put on by the U.S. Naval Academy, the National Sailing Hall of Fame, and Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (CRAB), it takes recovering military out of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for a day of sailboat racing with midshipmen and CRAB volunteers. It is a tremendously successful event that provided a break to those in the process of recovery, therapy, and undergoing additional surgeries. It also provides plebes (first-year midshipmen) their first opportunity to talk with men and women who have recently been in combat.

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I spent the day in company with some great people. One of them was Admiral Phil Cullom, a seasoned surface fleet and high level officer who recently retired from a 38-year career in the Navy.

We spent a couple of hours together on a powerboat chasing the racing boats, which consisted of eight of the Academy's Colgate 26 fleet and six new Beneteau 22A sailboats run by CRAB. The midshipmen on the Colgate 26s were fast and the racing pretty close, and the plebes and disabled warriors got to know each other. The Beneteau boats were less focused, and those normally confined to wheelchairs were strapped into special bucket seats fitted in the cockpit of the 22-footers. It helped that it was a spectacular day in Annapolis, the downtown area taken up by the Kunte Kinte Heritage Festival. The Chesapeake Bay was a sea of white sails, with two other regattas going on, as well as the 505 World Championship. It's a busy time in Annapolis, with Trawler Fest coming this week.

Anyway, as the boats rounded one of the marks, Bo Bollinger and I took lots of pictures, while the admiral took the helm. He spun us around quite admirably (sorry), and clearly knew what he was doing.

As we came back to the dock at the conclusion of our four-race program, I jokingly asked him if he could drive a ship that well, spinning it around like a ballet dancer.

Admiral Cullom smiled. He said he had a story to tell me about driving a destroyer. We tied up and then went to a BBQ lunch provided by Mission BBQ. You can't imagine what fun it is watching midshipmen eat. The amount of food they consume is impressive, and they are sooo polite.

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Anyway, after a short awards ceremony and closing remarks by the organizers and the admiral, we broke up and people started drifting away, the disabled warriors headed back on the bus to Walter Reed. Before everyone disappeared, I caught up with Admiral Cullom and asked him about his destroyer story. I still wanted to hear it.

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He explained that when he got his first ship command, a destroyer, he followed advice given him by a surface fleet mentor. When the ship went to sea for the first time, he took control of the bridge, literally, and drove the ship himself. He operated all of the controls himself. Full speed, tight turns in all directions, full speed emergency stop to see how long it took and how much sea room he needed. He spent three hours running the ship completely alone, going through every possible maneuver, his crew on the bridge but not touching anything. He knew they wondered what this new captain was up to, but they simply watched him run the ship.


He told me it was critical to establish the absolute baseline performance of his ship, how much it would roll while turning, and every other element of performance of the ship under his control. Speed, maneuverability, what it could and could not do. All without the human factor between what was in his mind and the ship's response to his commands.

He explained that by doing this himself, he knew when his XO and other bridge crew ran the ship, he would always know what the ship was capable of, and how quickly, without the middleman of each crew member added to the equation. He would never need to lose his temper or wonder what would happen next because he had already determined his ship's abilities. He said he always knew when it was time to take command of his ship back from someone's error or misjudgement.

We all know the stress and raised voices when things on the water get a bit out of hand or questionable, whether it is a spouse's judgement or the clown in that other boat. Knowing the absolute limits of your boat can provide you with the edges of the envelope in which you operate, which he said kept things calm.

I brought up the recent collisions of Navy ships, and he flatly told me not to ask his opinion, which of course I already knew precisely where he stood on that subject.

Anyway, thought I would pass that along. Something to think about, knowing what she'll do. And then knowing if she isn't doing it, it's a human in the way.