Guest Blog By: Lieutenant Natalie Schimelpfenig, USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) Navigator
Officer of the Deck (OOD) is the most coveted underway watchstations for a young ensign on board a U.S Navy warship. This position gives junior officers a great amount of authority because while standing the watch they act as a direct representative of the ship’s captain and are responsible for the navigation and safety of the vessel. Although OODs are assisted by other navigation watchstanders on the bridge team, it’s an intense role to fill.
I originally attended OOD training en route to my first ship, USS Lake Erie (CG 70). It consisted of several hours in a virtual reality headset simulator under the close watch of experienced officers. While driving in this virtual environment, I practiced giving steering commands, driving through various weather and traffic conditions, and performing mooring evolutions. I felt the training gave me more than enough preparation to drive my newly assigned ship. After standing bridge watches during workups and a 7th Fleet deployment on board Lake Erie, I was even more confident in my ship driving ability and ready to finally take the deck.
Later, when I received orders to Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Crew 101, I was surprised to see that I would be attending three more months of OOD training before joining the command. As it turns out, the high speed OOD School in Newport, Rhode Island was the best school I’ve attended in my four years of naval service.
The two major differences for an OOD on an LCS, vice standing the watch on a conventional ship, are the hands on approach to ship driving and the increased amount of responsibility. While conventional ships have watch teams of about ten Sailors to handle all bridge responsibilities, the LCS relies on the OOD and JOOD. In addition to assisting the OOD with radar operation and voice communications, the JOOD takes on the responsibilities of the traditional Quartermaster of the Watch, who performs navigation duties and maintains the deck log, and the Boatswains Mate of the Watch, who makes all shipboard loudspeaker announcements via the 1MC. The OOD is primarily tasked with driving. Using two handles called “combinators” that control the ship’s four water jets, the OOD can use the jets to direct the ship in twists that can shift the ship port or starboard while keeping the ship on its original heading.
After more than 100 hours of simulator time spent mastering high speed operations and precision ship handling, I was given the opportunity to drive a real LCS for the first time in April while we were underway for a weekend of refresher training. Our commanding officer, Commander Spencer Austin, decided to perform an anchorage just off the coast of San Diego. Once the order was given, seeing the bridge and anchoring teams spring into action and conduct a safe evolution with such ease was incredible. Performing a precision anchorage involves driving to a chosen anchoring location and stopping the ship within 25 yards of that location. With unexpected traffic and the fading light of the day, my team expertly supported my driving and I gave the command to “let go the anchor” within seven yards of our intended spot.
Less than 24 hours later I checked off another ship driving first. In the simulators, every junior officer practices pier work without tugboat assistance. However, most OODs will never get to put those skills to the test in the fleet. That wasn’t the case for me. My captain has such confidence in his Sailors’ abilities that he allows all of his OODs to attempt to moor without help from the tugboats. So, the next morning after our successful anchoring, my JOOD and I pulled into port. With my captain’s trust, and many hours of intensely realistic simulator training, I successfully moored without tugs for our weapons offload. It was an amazing moment in my career.
From my first experiences on USS Lake Erie, to my most recent on USS Fort Worth, I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve been afforded and earned in the Navy. It’s rewarding to know that hard work will continue to pay off!