Of Sails and Science

A time to look back and a time to look forward…

Two pieces of news have rushed Navy memories to my head, both related to sailing:

  • A woman assumed command of the Navy’s historic sailing ship, USS Constitution – aka Old Ironsides.
  • The Navy began operating a Saildrone (USV or Unmanned Surface Vessel).

A time for old and a time for new!

My Navy and federal careers were a lot like that – a mix of backward-glancing and forward-looking. I became fascinated with Navy history and its ties to the British Navy, and was fortunate to be on board Old Ironsides in 1997 when she sailed under her own power for the first time in 116 years. (This was a few days before Dan Rather, the President and many other VIPs came aboard for a short cruise to celebrate the ship’s 200th birthday. We needed to prove it would work first! It’s called a sea trial.) I’ll never forget the feel of it as the tug cut loose and the ship creaked and rocked under sail. Or the sight of two navigators of different generations working feet from each other, the old fellow using the latest GPS technology and the young guy charting by hand as they compared notes – the opposite of what you’d expect. Again, the old and the new.

USS Constitution, launched in 1797, is the Navy’s oldest commissioned warship.

Now the first woman has taken command. (The ship is still in active service, so, yes, she really is “in command.”) Last month, the first woman took command of a nuclear aircraft carrier. Several women of color command warships. It’s not big news any more.

I remember when my male colleagues doubted that I could stand watch effectively, even on shore.

Society does move on. The word “progressive” has taken on negative political connotations in some circles, but that’s what this is — progress.

As for the science. Also exciting stuff! Science was a big part of my federal career, and part of my Navy career also – 15 years at the National Science Foundation, two short stints at the NATO Center for Maritime Research and Experimentation, eight years at the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. At DHS, maritime security was briefly my area of focus while unmanned vessels were just arriving on the scene.

Now, drones “under sail” (though nothing like the sails on Old Ironsides) in a major unmanned military exercise!

Who’s “driving” them? What will they “see?” Will they eventually carry weapons? I no longer have the security clearance, or access, to know such things. Yes, progress can seem scary at times until I remember the extensive training, evaluation and ethical discussions that I witnessed (and sometimes engaged.) I have no reason to believe that has changed. It’s just unnerving to no longer be at the table.

A time to “do” and a time to trust!

Speaking of sailing. I did that before I did any other kind of boating. I first learned on a windsurfer. During a recent scuba diving trip to Mexico, I tried to take out the windsurfer sitting idle at the resort. It was laughable. Oh, I did stand up and I did pull the sail out of the water. But actually sail it? Uh, no. In my defense, it was an advanced board (meaning tippy) and the sail was set too high for me. But still. Humbling.

Within a month, I’ll be back on board the Mainship Many Moons as her diesel engine rumbles up the Atlantic Intercoastal Waterway. I won’t be sailing and I won’t be immersed in science. But I may bong the bell for myself when I arrive (“Navy captain, arriving!”), just for fun. And I may ask Jeff to teach me more about the boat’s “engineering plant.” It isn’t science, but it all came from science.

I may not be in the swing of things professionally any more, but that doesn’t mean “I’m done!” Retirement is just a new phase of discovery. Let the adventure continue!

A few photos from personal Navy history follow.

(To read more about the milestones, click on the bold-faced links in the post above.)

The Navy brought me face-to-face with history in more ways than Old Ironsides. Here, with a WWII vet at the American Cemetery in Normandy (France) during the 50th Anniversary of D-Day in 1994.
The Navy also brought me face-to-face with ground-breaking women. I took this photo of Captain Nora Tyson (on right) while serving on board her ship, USS Bataan, in Panama in 2005. She was in command of the ship. I was “in command” of the news media swarming over it. (The woman on left is a Panamanian journalist.) I was also a captain at the time, but very aware of our difference in responsibility if not rank! She later became the first woman to lead a U.S. Navy fleet and retired as a Vice Admiral. I still remember our personal conversation on the ship’s bridge about being women in the Navy.
Navy and science came together in 2005 when my promotion-to-Captain ceremony was held in the Director’s Office of the National Science Foundation. (I was an active Navy reservist while working full-time for NSF.) NSF Deputy Director Joe Bordogna (on my left) was a proud Navy veteran who asked to do the honors alongside Captain Chris Miller and NSF Director Arden Bement. What made this day extra-special is who else attended…my staff and teammates from both the Navy and from NSF. It isn’t common to see Navy uniforms and Birkenstock sandals in the same group! (I wish I had pictures of that.)

2 thoughts on “Of Sails and Science

  1. I had a career in satellite electronics (Air Force civilian) that included managing the development of the radiation hardened microprocessor used by NASA on all the Mars rovers. The things we were allowed to do as relatively junior government employees always amazed me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know! About amazing opportunities and responsibilities at a young age, I mean. I did some amazing things, in retrospect, in my twenties and thirties. It was strange, in my fifties, to see myself through their eyes as the old “has-been.” 😉 It’s so cool to hear that you also had that amazing exposure to the wonders of science.


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