- Aircraft carriers like the USS Abraham Lincoln go to sea with thousands of sailors who perform hundreds of tasks.
- But a small group of sailors make many of those tasks possible, and that role has earned boatswain’s mates the nickname “backbone of the Navy.”
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CLANK, CLANK, CLANK … The overwhelming power is hard to describe as a 30-ton Mark 2 Navy Stockless anchor and its over 1,000-foot chain is let go through the hawse pipe in the forecastle aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72).
Evolutions such as anchoring are possible thanks to the professional sailors in deck department. Boatswain’s Mates (BM), one of the Navy’s oldest original ratings, lead a team of undesignated seaman working side-by-side ensuring their duties are completed with the utmost professionalism. It’s a common misconception that deck department mainly does preservation work.
Yes, preservation is one aspect of the job; but BM’s take part in many important evolutions, such as anchoring, mooring, underway watches, replenishments-at-sea (RAS), launching and recovering rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RHIB), ceremonies and more. This is no easy task for a department of roughly 90 sailors, but their work ethic has earned BM’s the title “Backbone of the Navy.”
“I love knowing we are handling such important evolutions for the ship,” said Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Alexandra Shashaty. “We are the backbone to the ship because without us you really can’t recover a man-overboard, anchor the ship or moor up. It makes me feel like we really do add to the importance of the ship.”
In plain sight, the sailors in deck are seen working on evolutions they take part in, but there are more behind-the-scenes actions many don’t recognise.
“For most of our evolutions, there is a lot of setting up in preparation that can come days in advance,” said Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate Gary Simpson, deck department’s leading chief petty officer.
“There are a lot of maintenance and situational checks that must be completed. They need to lay out the lines or make sure all the appropriate gear is ready, but no one really sees it. They might see the operation happening, but not all the effort they put in prior to the event actually happening. We have a group of young men and women getting all that done with no assistance from the outside.”
The highest level of professionalism and military bearing is a requirement and necessity for deck department, as it is not uncommon for a deck sailor to be standing side-by-side with high ranking officers, especially while on watch in the bridge.
There are three watches located on the bridge: helmsman, lee-helmsman and boatswain’s mate of the watch (BMOW). These watchstanders, sailors an average age of 18-20, steer the ship, control the ship’s speed, and maintain a clear picture while Abraham Lincoln navigates the high seas.
“I strongly believe in the ability of these young men and women,” said Lt. Cmdr. Reza Chegini, the head of deck department.
“I am committed to staying true to the course and enforcing our core values and and principles to not only help promote a sense of ownership and cultivate a positive climate, but also to create a productive culture free of harassment, fraternization and bullying that would enable them to focus on level of knowledge, proficiency and qualifications with tangible results while staying mindful that ‘We are the United States Navy, our Nation’s sea power – ready guardian of peace, victorious in war.'”
With the hardy work tasked to sailors in deck department, there is also a great sense of dignity and pride that comes from what they put into their job.
“We are very proud of the forecastle,” said Seaman Cecilia Ellerbe, an undesignated seaman in deck department.
“We are always preserving the space. It is where you will see ‘Backbone of the Navy’ painted proudly. There are a lot of ceremonies, church services, group photos, and visits that frequent the forecastle, and we are always happy to show off our hard work. It’s also an honour to do things like man the boat deck during a man-overboard, knowing that we could save someone’s life.”
Being a part of deck department offers opportunities to their sailors to work on themselves in a personal and professional manner as well as to contribute to the overall mission of the ship.
“It’s where they developed their character and work ethic while executing high-risk evolutions among mostly junior personnel in support of the unit’s mission to win the fight, deter conflict, and be a ready platform for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief when called upon by our county’s leaders in support of our nation without any expectations of garniture or special acknowledgment,” said Chegini.
With all the important evolutions deck department’s sailors complete on a regular basis, it is imperative to remember the daily hard work and dedication. One day they could be the ones lowering the RHIB into the water to save your life.