Midshipman 1st Class Sarah Early, center, and Midshipman 2nd Class Krystyna Nowakowski work with a Chinese sailor during the first-ever cruise by mids aboard a Chinese training ship. (Courtesy of Midshipman 2nd Class Krystyna Nowakows)
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You've probably met foreign sailors and toured warships from allied nations. But did you ever wonder what it's like to sail with the Chinese navy?
Two Naval Academy midshipmen got just that chance this June. The Chinese-speaking mids were the only foreigners on naval training ship Zhenghe during a two-week leg of its around-the-world journey. It marks the first time U.S. mids have embarked on a Chinese naval ship.
And as they found out quickly, it wasn't so hard to adjust.
"Almost everyone spoke English," recalled Midshipman 1st Class Sarah Early, a 23-year-old Chinese major at the academy. "I think it was pretty tough to speak Chinese on the ship because we don't focus on any kind of naval lingo" during language courses. The classes in Annapolis centered on basics such as grammar and getting around.
The cruise occurred against a backdrop of high-level jockeying between the countries, as Western experts watch China's navy rise with unease and while a close American ally, Japan, remains locked in an escalating territorial dispute with China over uninhabited islands. But on Zhenghe, as the 433-foot-long ship transited from Cadiz, Spain, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, there was no sign of this wariness — only hospitality.
"I definitely think that we got along with the girls and with the midshipmen onboard," said Midshipman 2nd Class Krystyna Nowakowski, referring to the Chinese complement of 13 female mids and roughly three dozen male mids. "Everyone really went out of their way to be friendly to us. We were treated very, very well on that ship."
That began with breakfast. Chinese typically eat noodles, sticky rice or dumplings for breakfast with chopsticks and drink tea. But the Chinese hosts cooked special, "American-style" breakfasts every day for their guests: two eggs, toast and ham. And they offered them forks.
Both mids noticed that the Chinese typically ate soup with their meals and didn't drink water. But, in another show of hospitality, they gave them bottles of water.
So what's the rest of the chow like in the Chinese fleet? "Rice with every meal," answered Nowakowski, who explained that it was served along with entrees, frequently vegetables. Meals often didn't include meat.
To celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival, a big Chinese holiday, the mids helped the crew make traditional dumplings, but most of the time the enlisted crew prepared the food.
Different training methods
In the U.S. Navy, sailors are used to seeing mids in ships and squadrons each summer. They typically help train these officer candidates, who are there to get fleet experiences, ranging from conning the ship to needle-gunning. Mids also drive ships, such as yard patrol craft, to learn the basics of Navy life.
That system differs from Zhenghe, which is run like a school ship. Chinese mids take five years of classes at their naval academy in Dalian City. Their education centers on vocational skills, such as navigation and engineering. They can take some of this coursework on a school ship, where their primary job is still to learn.
"I noticed they had much more interaction with officers and not as much with enlisted," said Nowakowski, 20, who recalled three to four courses a day, mainly taught by officers. Each focused on a different skill: plotting with a sextant, maneuvering boards, meteorology.
"They had a very good knowledge" of navigation, observed Nowakowski, who is leaning toward joining the surface Navy when she graduates in 2014.
By the time the U.S. mids checked onboard, Zhenghe was two months into a five-month goodwill cruise around the world. The male students were fifth-year mids about to graduate and enter the fleet, while the female mids were in their second year. Many of them were set to become surface warfare officers, which is unusual for the Chinese navy, said Early, who plans to service select SWO at the academy this fall.
The female mids escorted Early and Nowakowski to class and went out of their way to help them.
Guarding secrets also didn't seem to be an issue, perhaps because it was a training ship and not a warship, where codebooks may be out. Neither mid recalled seeing classified material nor being told to stay out of any spaces.
"We followed our partners around, so we didn't have any opportunities to wander around the ship," Early explained.
So what's the most unusual thing about sailing with the Chinese Navy?
"We took a nap every day between 12:30 and 2 [p.m.]," Early recalled with a laugh. After lunch, it was common for all the officers and mids to take naps, a practice one instructor onboard explained was part of a "Work smarter, not harder" philosophy. Typically, they got up at 6:30 a.m. and went to bed at 10 p.m., Early said, a routine that meant the mids were getting about 10 hours of sleep a day.
Early had mixed feelings about the napping.
"They get a good amount of sleep every night, and then they're able to work better," Early said, but added: "I felt a little guilty taking a nap."