Story by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Liz Dunagan, USS Blue Ridge Public Affairs
Ensign Elizabeth Cotter, the 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) force protection officer, won the Junior Ship Handler of the Year 2015, awarded by Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) 7, Nov. 26.
Each of the nine commands attached to ESG-7 sent a junior officer as representative, for a competition consisting of performing multiple ship handling evolutions in a simulator, including mooring a ship to a pier, pulling away from the pier and getting underway. They were also evaluated on their abilities to perform an underway replenishment and man overboard scenarios with varying environmental factors.
“I am psyched I won because it gives the Blue Ridge crew something to be proud of,” said Cotter.
She continued saying that despite not believing she would win, she was glad to bring the victory home.
Although successful at the competition, Cotter did not always find comfort on the bridge. During her first special evolution, maneuvering into Guam Harbor, Cotter underestimated the influence that the current would have on the rudder versus the wind, thus creating a less than ideal route to the pier.
“What she managed to do as the officer of the deck (OOD) under instruction, was learn how environmental conditions affect a ship like Blue Ridge,” said Blue Ridge‘s Commanding Officer Capt. Kyle P. Higgins. “Blue Ridge gets pushed around a lot. So, the crew has to anticipate the waves, currents and winds.”
“There was a big current at the entrance of the harbor,” said Cotter. “What I needed to do was speed up, so I could offset the ship with the current and drift into the harbor.”
“Over the course of time, I’ve had the opportunity to watch Ensign Cotter work her magic on the bridge,” said Higgins. “It has been a pleasure to see her go from an inexperienced junior officer to that of a very seasoned officer of the deck.”
Cotter said she credits the whole team of junior officers and her commanding officer for her accomplishments. She also acknowledges that what benefited her the most was the experience she gained while underway.
When questioned by fellow competitors concerning her techniques, Cotter relayed that officers aboard Blue Ridge are given the reigns and are allowed to make mistakes and learn from them.
“The best thing about being OOD, is when the captain is sitting in his chair on the bridge, looks at you and you know you messed up. But, he doesn’t embarrass you,” explained Cotter. “The captain lets you make a mistake and then he’ll brief you about the situation with the intent of improving you as a ship handler.”
“Her entire experience on board has been nothing, but learning and gaining confidence in who she is as a surface warrior,” said Higgins, “and then, applying that confidence and knowledge every single day.”
Cotter was also briefly given simulation training before she left for the competition with the navigation officer, Lt. j.g. Melissa Avidano.
Avidano recalled a difficult transit into Brisbane harbor, Australia, that she specifically recommended Cotter lead, because of her natural understanding of how a ship handles.
“Ship handling is an art,” said Avidano. “Cotter just happens to have the skills and abilities to drive and feel the ship.”
“I guess what I’ve learned from this competition is to follow your instincts,” said Cotter. “If you have a knack for something, then you should dedicate yourself to try and become better at it.”