We all know that a driver’s license is a ticket to freedom and mobility-a chance to hit the open road without supervision and to leave our worries behind. As quartermasters (QMs) will tell you that sense of freedom can also be found on the open sea.
“I’ve driven lots of cars, but I’ve only ever driven one ship,” said Quartermaster 2nd Class Christopher Szkaradnik, assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69), nicknamed Ike. “It’s an incredible feeling to know you are in control of something this big.”
Deck seamen are often seen manning the helm when the ship is sailing through calm waters, but only QMs who are master helmsman-qualified are allowed to man the helm during demanding circumstances and precision evolutions. Required to stand a minimum of 20 hours under instruction before they can drive alone, prospective master helmsmen need to earn something even more important: the trust of the ship’s commanding officer.
“The captain has to have confidence in you,” Szkaradnik said. “That confidence usually comes from seeing you in high-pressure situations, like underway replenishments (UNREPs).”
During UNREPs, gunner’s mates fire shot lines from Ike to a supply ship to tether the two ships together. Stores and supplies are then brought over using a trolley assembly, or fuel is brought over using hoses connected to both ships.
“UNREPs can be very dangerous,” Szkaradnik said. “You have two ships that are about 180 feet away from each other, and you have to make sure you aren’t pulling too far away or getting too close. It’s even harder if the water is choppy.”
Quartermaster 3rd Class Robert Rahe, also assigned to Ike, said other high-pressure situations include pulling in and out of ports and driving during times of low visibility.
“There are so many factors to consider,” Rahe said. “You have to think about the ship’s speed, wind speed, wave swells, and the fact that you might be restricted in your ability to maneuver.”
Szkaradnik and Rahe have both helmed the ship during flight operations, a time they agree is crucial for them to remain vigilant.
“The conning officer and the officer of the deck are depending on you to steer precisely on course so the jets can take off easily and land even easier,” Rahe said.
Szkaradnik said his first time taking the helm during an UNREP was anything but smooth.
“I had never done it before, but I was excited to try,” Szkaradnik said. “It was absolutely unnerving. The ship was pulling away from the supply ship, and the seas were bouncing us around. I couldn’t figure out where the middle ground was to keep us steady, and eventually I ended up getting replaced at the helm.”
Rahe’s first time driving wasn’t as stressful, but it was just as memorable.
“My mind was racing. Even though I received the right amount of training, nothing can compare to grabbing the 95,000-ton Ike by the helm with no assistance,” Rahe said. “Luckily, everything was steady that night, and I was able to stay on course.”
Szkaradnik and Rahe both said, like driving a car, the only way to get better is to get behind the wheel.
“It can feel really hectic in the beginning,” Rahe said. “If you work on sharpening your skills, you slowly become immune to the pressure, and it turns into a routine.”
Szkaradnik said that if he doesn’t man the helm for a while, he feels nervous when he resumes his master helmsman duties.
“Eventually, the nerves go away,” he said. “And it’s just like riding a bike.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower is currently underway conducting flight deck certification.