Gem of Annapolis: the U.S. Naval Academy

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Of all the places to explore by boat on the Chesapeake Bay, Annapolis is one of the must-see ports of call. And the real gem of Annapolis is the U.S. Naval Academy, where the Navy trains its officer corps.

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For this sailor’s taste, the academy and its campus — known as “the Yard” — is the main reason to visit Annapolis. The town’s City Dock commercial waterfront is chockablock with tourists, traffic and tawdry chain stores, but the Naval Academy is a place apart: Spacious and beautifully landscaped, rich in history, home to an active, rigorous, storied university that dates to 1845. The 338-acre campus and its buildings and monuments, harking back to our nation’s early days, make it a living museum, especially with the uniformed Mids walking to class or being marched about in drills.

What to see
One million visitors come through the academy’s gates each year. Popular spots include Bancroft Hall, one of the world’s largest dormitories and the administrative center of the academy, parts of which are open to the public. Be sure to see Memorial Hall, which has several rolls of honor and the Navy’s most famous battle ensign, the “Don’t Give Up the Ship” flag flown by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry at the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie (it bears the dying command of Capt. James Lawrence, captain of the USS Chesapeake, killed trying to break the British blockade off Boston).

Hard to miss is the architectural centerpiece of the campus — the Navy Chapel. This is always an extremely busy place after graduation: Midshipmen are required to be single and, as soon as they graduate, many of the newly minted officers line up to get married in the chapel in full dress uniform.

In a vault beneath the sanctuary is the tomb of John Paul Jones (“I have only begun to fight!”), the country’s first naval hero. A Scotsman who fought for America during the Revolutionary War, Jones died in Paris and was buried there in an unmarked coffin before his body was eventually exhumed and brought back to America for interment in the academy chapel. Although the Navy says his body was positively identified, some historical research says there is legitimate doubt Jones’ body is actually the one in the crypt.

The Naval Academy Museum in Prebel Hall, which has lots of academy lore, intricate model ships and memorabilia of U.S. naval history, is currently closed for renovations through 2008.

Among the notable monuments in the Yard are the iron mast of the battleship Maine, bent by the explosion that sank it in Havana Harbor in 1898 (the spark that touched off the Spanish-American War), and the Techumseh Statue in front of Bancroft Hall, a bronze replica of the figurehead of ship-of-the-line USS Delaware.

The Army figures prominently in this Navy stronghold. The Japanese bell in front of Bancroft Hall is rung each time Navy beats Army in their storied football rivalry. “Go Navy, Beat Army!” is a school mantra. And varsity letter winners whose team beats Army are awarded a special gold star to affix near the “N” on their blue cardigans.

The Santee Basin and Robert Crown Sailing Center, located on the northeastern corner of the Yard, is where the academy keeps its fleet of boats for teaching Midshipmen how to sail. The academy has extremely active intercollegiate and offshore sailing programs, and recently spent about $17 million to replace its aging fleet of Navy 44 yawls (designed by Bill Luders) with brand-new Navy 44 sloops (designed by McCurdy & Rhodes), all with gleaming dark-blue hulls. Recent news reports indicate the offshore program is facing deep budget cuts, which may force some of the boats to the mothballs and many of its sailors into other training programs.

A unique academy tradition is the Herndon Climb, a right of passage held each May and the ultimate final exam for plebes who have survived their grueling first year. More than 200 pounds of lard are slathered on the 21-foot-high Herndon Monument, with a plebe’s “Dixie cup” sailor hat carefully placed on top. To mark their departure from the bottom of the academy ladder, the class must form a human pyramid around the greasy monument so a classmate can reach the top and replace the Dixie cup hat with a Midshipman’s hat. The grunting, sweating, slippery pile of bodies often collapses, but a plebe always reaches the top, no matter how long it takes.

On rare occasions, a tradition will end — such as the private Naval Academy Dairy Farm, which was discontinued a decade ago. Congress authorized the farm after an epidemic of typhoid fever (traced to tainted milk) swept through the academy in 1910, and it lasted 90 years before falling demand and private-sector prices made the operation obsolete. Anne Arundel County now holds a 30-year lease on the land, with Maryland Sunrise Farm as the tenant and operator. The facility, 15 miles northwest of Annapolis in Gambrills, Md., is open to the public.

Commissioning Week is typically held in mid- to late-May each year, and its numerous events pretty much take over Annapolis, culminating in the full-dress graduation ceremony held at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. The high point — a spectacular air show performed over the stadium by the Blue Angels, the Navy’s precision flying squadron — is also extremely popular with boaters, as the dark blue jets and their heart-stopping acrobatics are easily visible from any anchorage in Annapolis harbor.

About the Academy
The academy is one of four for training U.S. military officers. (The Army’s is at West Point, N.Y.; the Air Force Academy is in Colorado Springs, Col.; and the Coast Guard Academy is in New London, Conn.) Among its rivals, the Naval Academy is known derisively as “Canoe U,” “the Boat School,” and “Shipwreck Tech.” The academy’s mascot, Bill the Goat, is a symbol dating to 1893 (the original goat, El Cid, was deemed to have helped Navy to a 6-4 victory over Army that year), and has been a frequent target of Army pranksters from West Point.

More than 10,000 students and enlisted personnel apply to the academy each year, of which about 1,200 are admitted. The entire student body, known as the Brigade of Midshipmen, totals about 4,200 men and women. The 600-plus faculty members are roughly split between civilians and military officers. Upon graduating from the four-year university, Midshipmen have a five-year commitment as a Navy or Marine Corps officer. If they choose to join the Navy, they are commissioned as ensigns, while those entering the Marine Corps are given the rank of second lieutenant.

The academy’s graduates include 4,000 admirals and generals, one president (possibly two, if U.S. senator and former Navy fighter pilot John McCain wins election in 2008), 19 members of Congress, five governors, 73 Medal of Honor recipients and two Nobel Prize winners.

Getting in
To be admitted, Naval Academy candidates must be between 17 and 23 years old, single with no children, of good moral character, and pass physical fitness and vision tests. Since 1903, each U.S. senator or congressman can make two appointments to the academy per year, and currently each member of Congress and the vice president can have up to five appointees at the Naval Academy at any one time. Lawmakers generally nominate 10 candidates per vacancy, which the academy admits by competitive process; if a member of Congress makes a “principal” (personal) appointment, the candidate need only be qualified.

A certain number of spaces are reserved each year for children of military members killed in action, 100 percent combat disabled or active duty Navy or Marine enlistees. Children of Medal of Honor recipients need only qualify to be admitted.

Tours
Various special tours are available by reservation ($8.50 per adult, $7.50 per senior, $6.50 per child), such as a Historical Tour, Tour & Tea (at the Officers’ and Faculty Club), a Military Reunion tour for veterans, an African-American Tour, the Jewish Chapel and Levy Center Tour, a Navy Boot Camp for first- through fifth-graders, and an Educational Tour for fourth- through 12th-graders.

The academy typically is open to pedestrians through the Main Gate from 6 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday (and until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday), with photo ID. Cars are not permitted without a Navy parking pass. Because of special events or other security issues, be sure to contact the academy’s public affairs office before your visit to make sure they are open: (410) 293-2291 or -1523, e-mail pao@usna.edu , Web site www.usna.edu/PAO/

Want to see some action? The full Brigade of Midshipmen holds a lunchtime formation about 12:10 p.m. weekdays, weather permitting, in Tecumseh Court in front of Bancroft Hall, as they are marched in to eat. Also, visitors may watch the brigade’s formal dress parades on Worden Field, held on various occasions in the spring, summer and fall. Most athletic events are open to the public free of charge, and the academy also hosts concerts and plays, some free. Check the academy’s Web site (www.usna.edu ) and public affairs office (below) for listings.

Steve Blakely sails his 26-foot Island Packet, Bearboat, out of Galesville, Md., about 15 miles south of the Naval Academy. He also writes a sailing blog at www.travelbeat.net/sailing

U.S. Naval Academy: www.usna.edu/

Naval Academy Museum: www.usna.edu/Museum/

Naval Academy Chapel: www.usna.edu/Chaplains/

Visiting the USNA: www.usna.edu/visit.htm

USNA Public Affairs: www.usna.edu/PAO/

Robert Crown Sailing Center: www.usna.edu/SailingTeam/faq/rcc.html

To apply to the USNA: www.usna.edu/Admissions/

Maryland Sunrise Farm (former USNA Dairy Farm):

www.mdsunrisefarm.com/