USS MAKIN ISLAND, At Sea -- Amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD 8) left for its maiden deployment Nov. 14, using one of its most junior Sailors to help steer the hybrid-electric powered ship out of San Diego harbor.
Twenty-four year-old Seaman Charity Daniele Johnson, who qualified as a master helmsman just one month prior to deployment, was responsible for steering the ship safely into the open ocean as Makin Island began its regularly scheduled deployment in support of the Navy's maritime strategy.
While any qualified helmsman can drive the ship in open waters, a master helmsman is tasked with steering the 844-foot ship through narrow ports and other challenging maneuvers underway, such as replenishments-at-sea with refueling ships.
"It gets complex when we have to pass other ships or go through narrow transits, so the master helmsman perfects each turn, and is prepared to face casualties, in case we lose steering or something like that," said Johnson, a native of Greenville, S.C.
Just two days after deployment began, Johnson was at the helm again as Makin Island took on additional fuel from the Military Sealift Command dry cargo ship USNS Charles Drew (T-AKE 10) during a rough sea state replenishment-at-sea.
"It was my first real intense replenishment-at-sea, because of the seas we had, the ship was rocking, and it felt good to know that the captain trusted me enough to handle it."
Johnson said helmsman rely on smooth communication with the ship's conning officers and trust in themselves to handle the pressure of steering the ship wherever it has to go, including passing under the Coronado Bay Bridge in San Diego.
"At first, I was nervous going under the bridge, because I didn't want to mess up or damage a billion dollar ship, but with practice and repetition it became routine," she said. "Practicing the procedures on my own time, when I wasn't in the pilot house really helped me become more comfortable."
Johnson credited her trainer, Yeoman Seaman Antwine Charles, Makin Island's first master helmsman, with making her feel confident.
"Since I was the first qualified master helmsman aboard Makin Island, I've been responsible for training a lot of new helmsman, and I can honestly say that she is the best one I've trained," said Charles. "She's the first person I've trained who has been able to actually complete the master helmsman qualification-qualifying with flying colors I might add."
To qualify for master helmsman, Charles said a helmsman must execute a series of maneuvers: pulling in and out of port; replenishments-at-sea; well deck operations; anchorage; emergency steering simulations; and must be able to keep the ship within half a degree of the ordered course.
"He [Charles] took me step-by-step through all the procedures and helped me practice when I wasn't on the bridge," said Johnson.
Johnson said what initially influenced her to qualify as a master helmsman was the opportunity to become Makin Island's first female master helmsman.
"I was excited when I first qualified for the regular helmsman position, and my family was excited to know that I would be driving the ship," said Johnson. "They told me they could hardly believe I'm driving the 'big ol' ship."
Makin Island, the Navy's newest Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, is the first U.S. Navy ship to deploy using a hybrid-electric propulsion system. By using this unique propulsion system, the Navy expects over the course of the ship's lifecycle, to see fuel savings of more than $250 million, proving the Navy's commitment to energy awareness and conservation.
This initiative is one of many throughout the Navy and Marine Corps which will enable the Department of the Navy to achieve the Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus' energy goals to improve energy security and efficiency afloat and ashore, increase the Navy's energy independence, and help lead the nation toward a clean energy economy.
Commissioned in 2009, Makin Island is named in honor of the World War II raid carried out by Marine Raider Companies A and B, 2nd Raider Battalion on Japanese occupied Makin Island Aug. 17-18, 1942. LHD 8 is the second ship to bear the name Makin Island.