If you have the good fortune to experience Annapolis in the summer, you’ll have the chance to see one of the time-honored traditions at the U.S. Naval Academy, a naval training program pivotal to the pillars of Navy success. It’s the Basic Sail Training (BST) Program, where plebes first get their feet wet on the waters surrounding the Naval Academy, learning the ropes for what awaits them when they join the Fleet or Marine Corps. While strenuous, the sailing program is also a beautiful exercise, heightened by the thrill of Navy 26s gracefully gliding through the water and the taste of the salt air in the wind. In the heat of the Annapolis summer, the Basic Sail Training is a highly anticipated Navy basic training that offers a respite from the grueling physical training on hot, muggy Yard fields.
While it is its own type of physical exertion, this sport somehow transcends the rigor that is Plebe Summer. Jane Millman, director of Basic Sail Training,has been working with the plebes for three years. She recalls a particularly unique day when the plebes were out at their lessons two summers ago. Millman recounts, “On a very light wind day, we had our entire fleet of Navy 26s out sailing with plebes onboard with their instructors, and a large pod of dolphins swam through the fleet on their way into the Severn River, giving everyone onboard a delightful surprise — as we rarely see dolphins this far North in the Chesapeake Bay!” Moments like this are what makes the program so beloved.
The Tacking and Jibing of Training
The training starts on Saturday, July 8th, about one week after Induction Day for the plebes. It runs Monday through Saturday until August 15th (with the 16th held as a reserve day to handle weather delays), and takes a break during the weekend of August 12th and 13th since the plebes will be participating in various activities with their families and friends for Plebe Parents’ Weekend. The plebes are grouped by companies, which consist of two platoons of about 40 plebes each, and each company receives four separate sail training sessions. The platoon is split with two to three plebes per sailboat, each with an instructor. They run morning and afternoon sessions, and each lasts for approximately two hours and forty-five minutes. At the end of the summer, each plebe will have about twelve hours of sail training under their Navy belts.
The plebes sail a modified version of a Colgate 26, which is a popular sailboat used throughout the U.S. for both recreation and racing. It’s engineered for a simple and easy learning experience, and comfortably accommodates up to six adults. The Basic Sail Training Program has modified the boats slightly to meet the needs of the program, so their vessels are named Navy 26s. Plebe Summer Sailing uses 30 Navy 26s. The lessons take the plebes through the Severn River and Annapolis Harbor, making it out to a perimeter of Greenbury Point to Severn Sailing Association as the Southeastern boundary and the Naval Academy Bridge (RT 450, Baltimore-Annapolis Road) as the Northwest boundary.
Lessons on the Water
Each sailing lesson builds upon the last, with the ultimate goal for the plebes to learn the basics of sailing upwind and downwind, know a variety of sailing terms and definitions, understand basic navigation, learn how to control the sailboat, grasp the effects of wind and waves on the sailboat and be familiar with the different responsibilities each crew position has onboard and when driving the sailboat.
These lessons are vital to an education in maritime skills because they lay a foundation of basic seamanship that helps each midshipman as he or she prepares for their future naval careers as officers on ships, flying planes or on submarines. “Sailing has always been an integral part of the Naval Academy maritime tradition...we have had this fleet of Navy 26s since the late 1990's and before them, a fleet of wooden sailboats called the Knockabouts were used for training the plebes,” notes Millman. “Our hope as instructors is that the plebes also develop a respect for the water and power of the wind.”
Millman’s favorite part of the program comes at the end, when the plebes have learned the ropes and their instructors are thinking back over the summer. “My favorite part of the program happens at the end of the summer when the TADs are preparing to leave and head to their next school, and they reflect back on the busy time teaching all of the plebes. They reflect on the new skill of sailing they have mastered, teaching the incoming plebe class (something their fellow classmates do not have the opportunity to do) and how much they have enjoyed being on the water all summer despite the long hours and hot days. It all comes together to prepare them to be better officers when they go out into the Fleet.”
Plebes have also reaped numerous benefits from the program. While they are not formally evaluated at the end of the summer, plebes do continue their lessons during the academic year as fourth class midshipmen. A mix of civilian instructors and ensigns and 2nd lieutenants teach these courses, and plebes will earn their Basic Qualification (B-Qual) after about six to ten lessons, depending upon how much of their Plebe Summer Sailing they’ve retained. They can maintain this qualification by sailing at least once during the academic school year and passing a written quiz on Standard Operating Procedures for the Navy26, as well as basic sailing theory and the rules of the road. This qualification permits them to take a Navy 26 out sailing with their family and friends free of charge. Therefore many midshipmen earn their B-Qual and use it throughout their time at USNA.
Come Sail Away
Want to see these boats out on the water? Come visit the Yard! In addition to taking sailing lessons, plebes are currently pushing through the trials of Plebe Summer. They’re busy completing PT requirements and training to become the future naval leaders of our country. It’s an exciting time, and Annapolis is stunning in the summer. When you visit, you’re also giving back to the midshipmen who give so much to support our freedom. Your tours, meals and any purchases made at the USNA Gift Shop, USNA Midshipmen Store or Navyonline.com directly fund the Brigade of Midshipmen’s clubs and activities. Enjoy some time watching the waterfront, and see where the midshipmen’s maritime education begins!