Going into battle, the captain notes from the bridge that the crosswind has picked up, and he has a word with his officer of the deck. The OOD issues an order to the young helmsman. The helmsman turns the wood-spoked wheel to the right, and the boatswain picks up his silver
whistle and alerts the crew. A seaman plots the change of course on a large paper chart with a straightedge and pencil, noting the time. Below, in sight of the captain, hundreds of crewmembers ready the ship's weapons for a fight.
Ah, the ritual and romance of the fighting ship in the Age of Sail, when the 100-gun man-of-war, one of the most complex machines ever devised, roamed the oceans of the world. It's the romance that turned Patrick O'Brian's 20 Aubrey/Maturin novels into modern classics of nautical fiction and, Hollywood hopes, will make this month's Master and Commander, starring Russell Crowe, into a blockbuster. But the scene described above is actually standard operating procedure on the bridge of Nimitz-class U.S. Navy supercarriers today, carriers such as the recently commissioned U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, the Harry S. Truman and the Abraham Lincoln. Silver whistles, pencil and charts, the spoked wheel -- all are used in today's Navy, although, of course, a carrier also relies on instant messaging via encrypted satellite signals and, instead of powder-fired cannon shot, launches cruise missiles and smart-bomb-equipped F/A-18 Hornets.
For all the enormous and obvious changes in ship design, materials, propulsion systems, weaponry, controls, navigation, communications and the like, the fundamental purpose of big warships has not changed much in the 200 years since Lord Nelson commanded the H.M.S. Victory, the Nimitz of its day: "forward presence" during peacetime -- in the form of awesome machines whose mere appearance signals the will of empire -- and overwhelming firepower during war. (The ship in the Crowe movie is a smaller, faster brig, but itself a marvel of compact complexity.)
At sea level, the fundamentals also endure. "Wind hasn't changed. Waves haven't changed. The weather hasn't changed," says Capt. James "Hubs" Hubbard, who until last year was the U.S.S. Harry S. Truman's "air boss," the officer in charge of flight operations. Hubbard made the remark during a training cruise off the Virginia Capes before the ship's deployment for duties in the months before the Iraq war. "We still have to take all those things into account during an operation. For instance, we won't launch our F-14s in a crosswind greater than 7 knots."