Of a crew of 5,000 sailors aboard the supercarrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, only four are in charge of directing restricted maneuvering evolutions, and they are women.
Since the earliest days of the U.S. Navy, helmsmen have played an essential role, directing the nation’s ships as they ply the seas. They usually come from the ship’s deck department, and their purpose is to steer the ship at sea during normal situations. However, during special evolutions and unique scenarios, the senior helmsmen take command.
“Whenever the navigation team thinks the sea state is going to be rough, we’ll come up,” said Allison Coughlin, sonar technician (surface) first class, Ronkonkoma, N.Y., one of Theodore Roosevelt’s senior helmsmen. “When the ship is most likely to crash, that’s when we’re steering.”
When a vessel is executing a special sea and anchor detail, a strait transit, or entering or leaving port, a senior helmsman applies his or her experience and fine-tuned knowledge to navigate the fluctuating waters, ensuring the safety of the crew and the operational efficiency of the ship, guaranteeing a steady course regardless of wind or tide.
The Theodore Roosevelt’s helmsman qualification program makes it clear: any sailor, whether they have more than a decade of service under their belt or are fresh out of “A” school, will have an equal opportunity to prove themselves worthy of manning the helm.
“I didn’t know the position at first,” Coughlin said. “I had never been on the bridge before, but my boss told me that the navigation was looking for more master helmsmen and asked if I was interested. I wasn’t sure, but I also wanted to have more involvement in command.”
Coughlin and his chain of command contacted the Theodore Roosevelt’s navigation department to begin the standard qualification process. He received hundreds of hours of hands-on training from other qualified sailors, spending days of instruction and at the wheel until he qualified as a helmsman. Coughlin then submitted a special application form to begin the master coxswain program.
Accepted into the program, she was present at all subsequent evolutions at sea, receiving valuable instruction in helm handling during restricted maneuvering operations and similar events. With the support of her department, management and peers, Coughlin became a fully qualified senior helmsman on November 18, 2017.
Coughlin has served as senior coxswain on more than 120 special evolutions over three and a half years, but he still remembers his first watch. During the ship’s 2017 Composite Training Unit exercise, he carried the helm on his first replenishment at sea as a qualified senior helmsman.
“I was nervous when my instructor finally left me with the helm, because it seemed like it was always there before,” Coughlin said. “I thought, ‘this is crazy,’ but then pride took over and the training became second nature. Afterwards, I felt very proud and very excited that the whole chain of command trusted me so much. It’s like they were telling me, ‘you’ve got this, and it’s your turn to steer the boat while we’re 180 feet away from another boat.”
Officer Third Class Alexandra Miller of Annapolis, Maryland, another of Theodore Roosevelt’s helm masters, shares that sense of accomplishment and pride with Coughlin.
“For me, it was one of those challenging qualifications I wanted to get,” said Miller, who has piloted the boat for more than 25 special evolutions. “It’s great to know you’re doing something really important. When I’m driving, when I’m keeping the ship on course, it makes it easier for me to launch and catch aircraft. What we do complements the essential operations of the ship.”
“Personally, it means a lot to take the helm,” Coughlin said. “It shows that the chain of command trusts you a lot, even as a low ranking sailor. They don’t look at rank or whether you’re female or male; they don’t look at age; I mean, I qualified at eighteen, and a couple of the other senior helmsmen are currently eighteen and nineteen. When they see that you’re capable, no matter who you are, and they trust you, it’s an amazing feeling.”