Briton aboard to study abroad

A British Royal Navy officer will become a permanent part of a new U.S. Navy destroyer. Will the two navies ever be the same again?

By John Ruddy
Soundings Staff

It is said that the United States and Britain are two countries separated by a common language. The same can be said of the United States Navy and the British Royal Navy. As in the case of the English language, the United States takes its naval example from its British forbearers. Many of the traditions and practices of the U.S. Navy come directly from the Royal Navy. The U.S. and the U.K. are two countries separated by a common navy.

However, the two navies will be a little less separate — if one British naval officer has anything to say about it.

The recently commissioned guided-missile destroyer, USS Winston Churchill — named in honor of the World War II-era British prime minister — will make the Big Pond a lot smaller and bring the two navies together. The Churchill, the 31st Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, will be the first and only U.S. ship of the line to have a foreign naval officer stationed aboard as ship’s company.

“You have to be very flexible, very amenable,” said 27-year-old Royal Navy Lt. Angus Essenhigh, the Churchill’s navigation officer. The Londoner and Churchill plankowner reported for duty in March 2000 and will spend another year aboard ship.

Essenhigh is serving a two-year tour aboard the Churchill through the Navy’s Personnel Exchange Program. It’s a one-for-one exchange — American naval officer Lt. Garrick Miller is currently serving aboard Royal Navy frigate HMS Marlborough. But unlike other exchanges, this one’s permanent.

“When I’m relieved, I’ll be relieved by a British officer,” Essenhigh said. “Lt. Miller will be relieved by an American officer.”

It’s a chance for both naval allies to find out how the other operates. Essenhigh — the son of Admiral Sir Nigel Essenhigh, the First Sea Lord (the Royal Navy’s version of chief of naval operations) — will spend the next year learning new leadership techniques and seamanship skills peculiar to the U.S. Navy, and he’ll impart some of his Royal Navy wisdom on the ship’s officers and sailors.
“You have to be humble and modest about the experience,” Essenhigh said. He’s well aware of the delicate balancing act he has to do. He’s the ship’s navigator. He’s ship’s company. He’s a Churchill plankowner. But he’s a member of the British Royal Navy. He’s a foreigner. He’s an outsider. Still he has to give orders and lead. And then there’s that whole language barrier.

“I tell everyone, ‘Please understand, my vocabulary is different,’ ” Essenhigh said.

The differences between British English and its younger American cousin may slow the conversation down a bit, but it’s a workable situation and doesn’t affect communication that much; British “aluminium” vs. American “aluminum” is no major hurdle. However, on the bridge of the 9,600-ton warship cutting through the water at more than 30 knots, effective communication is key.

Essenhigh found this out when he tried to lay one of his “British” navigation words on the ship’s captain, Cmdr. Michael Franken.

“I said, ‘making a sternboard,’ ” Essenhigh recalled.

Franken was thrown. “What’s a sternboard,” he said. “That’s not a word.”

Essenhigh had to show his skipper the word in a dictionary of British nautical terms. It was an old sailing term retained by the Brits and dropped by the Yanks. “Making a sternboard” means “coming astern.” Essenhigh is outnumbered 350 to one — he now says “coming astern.”

Essenhigh had to watch his language in other instances, too. He can no longer shout out “5 cables” when he really means “1,000 yards.” Or when he wants to turn the ship, he can’t give the order “at wheelover.” No one will know what he’s talking about.

Well, some of the Churchill sailors do. Essenhigh has made some adjustments, but so have some of the other crew members.

“Like QM1 here,” Essenhigh said. “He’s practically bilingual. He understands me now.”

“Aye, aye leftenant,” the quartermaster said, chiding Essenhigh with the British pronunciation of lieutenant.

The differing American and British dialects are only a small, if interesting, part of the exchange. Other minor differences abound — alcohol is allowed on British ships, a quitting-time perquisite Essenhigh said he’ll miss. But other aspects of the U.S. Navy and Royal Navy reveal just how different the two sea services are.

“You have to remember that the two navies have grown up differently,” Essenhigh said.

To help minimize or at least recognize differences, the two navies exchange sailors every year to find out how the other operates. In the U.S. Navy, sailors are sent abroad through the Personnel Exchange Program. PEP grew out of a pilot exchange program started right after World War II between the U.S. and U.K. Today PEP sends about 220 Navy personnel overseas to about 20 NATO and allied countries, Britain, Canada and Australia being the primary countries of exchange. The Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Coast Guard also have exchange programs.

“The goal is interoperability and exposure to other militaries,” said Lt. Stacey Wright, coordinator of PEP, which is based in Washington, D.C. “It brings us closer to our allies.”

The typical exchange lasts two years and is geared toward junior officers and enlisted. Many naval communities take part in exchanges. “It’s a good thing,” Wright said.

The good thing is the exchange of ideas, tactics and ways of doing business. But beyond the experience gained by individual sailors, many feel that PEP brings little to the U.S. Navy as a whole. There is the element of strengthening the trans-Atlantic bond, but the Navy’s tactics, practices and procedures are set — the differences between the American and British navies will remain, regardless of PEP.

But the two navies have a number of similarities. Indeed, the U.S. Navy is steeped in traditions taken directly from the British Royal Navy. Honors ceremonies are very similar. The system of discipline in the two navies is also alike. The rank structure is virtually the same, and the chiefs have the same leadership status because of their experience. Many ratings have parity, as well, though some have different names or have been combined. For example, the Royal Navy no longer has signalmen or radiomen — they’re known as communicators. In the U.S. Navy, radiomen are also gone — the rating has been collapsed into the information specialist technician rating — but signalmen are still around.

One maritime skill that will never be done away with is navigation. It’s at the core of the sea service, whether British or American.

“This is an area we can impart a lot of knowledge to each other,” Essenhigh said.

Whether it’s American or British vessels, the science of ship driving doesn’t change much. The equipment may be different, but the principles are the same. The art of driving a ship is a whole other topic and brings with it a whole new set of rules.

For example, in the rules of the road in U.S. waters, navigators must remember “red right return.” That is, when a ship is returning to port, the red buoy lights are on the right, the green lights are on the left. In British waters, it’s “green right return,” Essenhigh said.

But physical orientation isn’t the only adjustment Essenhigh has had to make in the way he navigates a ship. He’s had to make an adjustment in cultural orientation.

“Here you’ve got to sort of get used to the team effort approach,” Essenhigh said.

Not that he’s not a “team player” — both navies are built around the “crew.” But as Essenhigh explained, the training for Royal Navy navigators is “very front-loaded.” They are more specialized than their American counterparts. British navigators typically do the combined jobs of officer of the deck, conning officer, and take their own bearings.

“That one person is in possession of all the knowledge,” Essenhigh said.

During his time aboard the Churchill, Essenhigh has observed that U.S. navigators rely more heavily on other crew members than with the British method of navigation. It requires a tight-knit crew, and everybody has to pull his weight. Each person has to act as a liaison within the system, from the sailor who takes the bearings, the one who plots them on a chart, the one who gives the order, to the helmsman who turns the wheel.

“If you don’t get the liaison right, things will fall apart,” Essenhigh said. “There’s a lot more coordination.”

In British navigating, all of that is avoided. But there are disadvantages to specialization — the “putting your eggs in one basket” principle.

“In the British system you’re relying on one person,” he said. “So if that one person gets it wrong, you’re in serious trouble.”

The American system is based more on generalization. In his eight years in the Royal Navy, Essenhigh has only done navigation. When a British officer reaches his command tour, he typically has done tours in navigation and combat information, but not engineering or other areas, so he or she is more dependent on other specialized officers. U.S. Navy surface warfare officers, on the other hand, will have already done tours as a navigator, engineering officer, weapons officer and more before they get to a command tour. “They will be more rounded in theory,” Essenhigh said.

But specialization works in the British system. Crews are typically smaller, so sailors must be responsible for more taskings in their area of expertise. The bridge of a British frigate like the Marlborough will have about five officers and sailors on any typically busy day, Essenhigh said, whereas a guided-missile destroyer like USS Winston Churchill will have almost a dozen.

The bridge may be more crowded than he’s used to, but Essenhigh probably doesn’t mind. He can probably use a hand. He not only has to navigate a new Navy ship, but must navigate his way through a new Navy, new at least to him.

“It’s just like being a young officer again,” he said. “It’s just like starting over.”