ANNAPOLIS -- Squeezing a 172-ton ship into place along the U.S. Naval Academy sea wall is a little like trying to parallel park a stretch limousine. But foiled attempts by practicing midshipmen on the Severn River may prevent problems elsewhere.
"Starboard engine back one-third. Starboard engine stop," said exasperated Midshipman Chris Culver on the fourth approach at the sea wall recently.
The joining of boat and pier did not come easily on a recent fog-drenched morning in an area better known for spinnakers than destroyers.
Plebes learn ship-handling on massive boats called Yard Patrols. Twisting and turning on the Severn River and Chesapeake Bay, the boats are floating classrooms for seamanship, tactics, communications and shipboard procedures.
The Yard Patrols also provide training for upperclassmen and are used for some summer cruise requirements.
This year's fleet is one-third larger with more than twice the displacement of the 25-year-old fleet it retired. The academy has received 11 of 20 new ships ordered for $3 million each.
The 108-foot Yard Patrols, which look like shrunken destroyers, provide midshipmen with a nautical experience comparable to that on a full-size vessel, said Lt. Cmdr. David Filz, the coordinator of an academy ship handling course.
But most midshipmen will board the real thing this summer, as part of a required cruise after plebe year.
"Everything they learn here they can take right to the fleet," Filz said. "They should know how a ship operates -- your controllable forces, your uncontrollable forces" after eight weeks of training on the Yard Patrols, he said.
The midshipmen learn teamwork and ship-handling characteristics; they also experience frustration.
During the recent drill, low visibility kept them out of the Chesapeake Bay and delayed practice of a maneuver in which two ships line up next to each other and pass supplies. In the Severn, the midshipmen were reasonably successful in a pair of man-overboard drills, but docking proved trickier.
"Come on, don't make me nervous," Culver muttered to himself as he directed the ship toward the sea wall and a midshipman prepared to hoist a line ashore.
Despite best-laid plans, the ship and the dock remained at odds. The first try was too far from dock, and on the second, the midshipmen failed to snag the line. The third unsuccessful attempt was blamed on wind. The fourth and fifth tries met the same fate.
"You don't get paid for crashing the ship into the pier," Filz said, trying to coax the crew with good-natured threats. "If you miss it this time, you'll be man overboard," he yelled.
But better days could be ahead. Part of the fleet is headed to the Great Lakes this summer. And Culver, of Milwaukee, who will be making the trip, said he already knows the pier there and expects no problems bringing the ship to port near his hometown.