By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)
Westport, CT – As they washed and polished the railings, decks and trim on the majestic sailing craft in the late afternoon sun, you could see the spirit of camaraderie, responsibility and duty developing among them. These young, clean-cut boys were learning the ways of the sea while being groomed to be future leaders of our great naval forces.
Early afternoon Friday saw the arrival at Cedar Point Yacht Club at One Bluff Point of the Valiant, Courage, Intrepid and Commitment – identical, virtually brand-new 44-foot long sailing vessels built by Pearson Composites specifically for the use of the United States Naval Academy for its training purposes.
The vessels and their respective crews of approximately 10 men per boat actually arrived from Annapolis, Maryland, Thursday evening but had to spend the overnight anchored near Cockenoe Island until they could be led in by a guide boat piloted by retired Marine Mike Lindberg. The skippers of each boat include Bill Erikson (Intrepid), Donna Sengelaub (Commitment), Matt Barnes (Valiant) and Lt. Commander Joe Slaughter (Courage). Their crews were mostly midshipmen, with varying levels of experience, and all in the 18 to 21 age range.
The visit was coordinated by Lindberg, fellow former Naval officer Ron Silverman, Westport Chamber of Commerce’s Heather Cavanagh and Cedar Point Yacht Club Manager Trey Lang, and served as a reward and break for the sailors for guiding their watercraft up the coast.
“Crew members are training to be commissioned officers in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps,” explained Navy Commander (RET.) Sengelaub. “Their paths begin as midshipmen 4th class and they can be officers in as little as four years, after graduating with a Bachelors in Science degree. Each May through August, Academy enrollees have one cruise, one month of training and one month of leave.”
Sengelaub said the on-board experience is designed to teach teamwork. “This is seamanship in its purest form,” she said. “Crew members may not know each other as they start with the basics of sailing and navigation. We teach them leadership, how to take action and plan ahead, and how to respond to equipment failure and emergencies. They may never have worked on an engine or sewn a sail before.”
Sengelaub said Valiant skipper Barnes, a Midshipman First Class who is just 21, is a prime example of the caliber of sailor the Academy can produce. “He entered the program three years ago with no sailing experience and is now responsible for 10 men at sea, most of whom are novices,” she said. “It’s a remarkable achievement.”
Another fine sailor is Courage’s captain Slaughter. The 35-year-old was a C-2 cargo plane pilot and aircraft carrier shooter. Now he skippers one of the four training boats and is a professor in the history department at the Academy.
These two men are not alone as shining examples. Midshipman 2nd Class Scott Rowe, 20, and Midshipman 1st Class Phoenix Geimer, 21, are hard at their heels proving their merit.
“My dad was air force enlisted for a while but our family really wasn’t a traditional military family,” Rowe said. “I found out about the Academy, its traditions and its sense of service. It appealed to me and I learned to sail during what they call ‘Plebe Summer’, an indoctrination for freshman. This is really my first time to lead. We’ve been through some storms and rough sailing. This is a great group – we really learn to rely on each other, especially on this type of vessel. You gain a sense of ownership of the boat, and confidence level.”
For Geiner’s part, he said, “This is the original Navy experience, dating back to the Navy’s formation in 1775. My grandfather went to the Academy. Every year when I was kid we would go to his class reunion. His classmates were a bunch of great people and inspired me.”
Geiner continued, “Our sail here was very fast – fifty percent faster than we expected. Every job on the boat is mirrored in the real Navy, from supply officer to skipper, so it’s real training in that sense.”
For organizer Lindberg, the boys’ visit recalled memories of his own Academy experiences before going on to fly fighter jets as a captain in the Marine Corps. “This is a chance for these guys to experience a large sailboat and get out in the ocean,” he said. “It’s a wonderful development and learning experience. I graduated from the Academy 40 years ago and wanted to make sure this experience remained part of Academy training.”
The group’s agenda for the weekend included a Friday evening barbecue with a racing group called the Flying Scots, an overnight with area host families, a free day Saturday, a Club dinner Sunday and a breakfast Monday hosted by the Chamber of Commerce, Touch of Salt catering and Aitoro Appliances. They will then catch the current at Hell’s Gate, the confluence of the Harlem River and East River in New York, and make the return to Annapolis.
“Cedar Point and local Westporters have given us a very warm welcome,” exclaimed Lindberg.