Setting Sail With The Navy

Setting Sail With The Navy

The US Navy has been getting serious about motorcycle rider safety in the past couple of years, with mostly impressive results. I had the good fortune to be invited to go on a ride with about 40 sailors from the USS Lincoln aircraft carrier to get a close up look at how they’re doing.

The impetus driving change was a report a few years ago that evidently indicated that the Navy was suffering more fatalities from sailors riding motorcycles off duty than from all
causes on duty worldwide. That would definitely get your attention!

The roots of this dire situation are not too difficult to suss out, and have been discussed in the dealerships where I have worked for several years. You take a young man (or increasingly, young woman) and put them in a combat situation where every move is
rigidly controlled, and they operate expensive and complex equipment in situations involving potentially great peril. They are earning combat pay, and have little chance to spend it, or to relax, or to “be themselves.” When they hit port, they have a tendency to
march into a motorcycle dealership with a considerable wad of cash in hand. All too often, they do not want to hear about rider training, or the concept of a first motorcycle to learn on and gain experience. They want “the bike,” the biggest, fastest, and most bad-ass motorcycle available. I have watched salespeople, to their credit, advising a cautious and reasoned approach to the motorcycle experience, and failing miserably. The sailor rides
off on a hyper bike, and all too often disaster ensues.

Logically, going by race results in the stock superbike class, the BMW S 1000 RR is that bike, but many sailors are coming from what they have heard, and the words “Ninja” and “GSX-R” (not really a word, but you get my drift) come to mind. All of these, plus the Yamaha R1 and various other bikes, are extremely capable motorcycles that function incredibly well in the real world. However, unleashed to their maximum potential they
are also extremely easy to crash, as all have much more ability to perform than the sailors riding them (or any other neophytes) have the experience to handle. Add in testosterone, the freedom of being back home and out from under the thumb of command, a sunny day, and …. the next part is not pretty.

At one time the military dealt with this by banning motorcycles from the base. That did not work well. A more recent and laudable plan has been to mandate training, and now we have the Navy contracting to offer essentially the MSF basic rider course for free to personnel from all branches of the military. This is a good thing. At times, evidently, an experienced rider course (ERC) is also mandated within a short period of time. Alas, the heavy hand of military expediency then comes down and those with both the BRC and ERC may be appointed “mentors” to others, even though they may have less than two months and 2,000 miles of riding experience. Not the best plan.

I may not have all the facts exactly squared up here, but the tide is plain. The Navy, and all other branches of the service, are improving their approach to the melding of motorcycles and young adults. I was glad to have the chance to find out how they
are doing. I was accompanied by Chris Johnson of Washington Motorcycle Safety Training, and he was by far the more important guest, as he would bring actual training expertise and guidance to bear. I was there primarily because the motorcycle enthusiasts
on board the Lincoln apparently read all of my articles in Sound Rider! magazine.

We gathered at the Naval Support complex near Arlington. I was almost late because I had been there before and thought I remembered where it was. I was wrong. Twice.

In any case, to my surprise about 40 motorcycles had gathered, divided almost equally into cruiser and sport bike groups. Chris and I spoke for a few minutes, and then it was time to ride. The plan was that I would slot in with the sport bike folks on my BMW
K 1300S, and Chris, riding his BMW F 800 GS, would ride between and among both groups to assess their riding. To my surprise, I learned that this group ride was a first– they had never before gained permission to do one.

The first hint of rider skill was when many of the sailors fired up their sport bikes and immediately took turns impressing each other by revving engines and bouncing them off the limiters with that odd un-syncopated staccato beat engines make when
electronically choking their own ignitions. This occurred every time we started engines during the day, and the cacophony was enough to drown out the grinding of a layer or two of enamel off my teeth. Is there no mechanical sympathy to be had? Ah, youth.

For the first few miles I assessed the gear being worn, and they are doing OK. All helmeted, of course, and mostly of good quality, and all wearing textile or leather riding jackets, some form of riding boots, and gloves. Many had not made that leap to riding pants, preferring the ubiquitous jeans, but that should come in time. Perhaps soon, as it began to drizzle, which will show you in a hurry the limitations of denim.

I also did not know that none of them have experience riding in this area, although that should have been obvious. I’d been told the intended route was from Arlington to Snoqualmie Falls, which would take in hundreds of possibilities of truly great motorcycle
riding roads. None of which they knew. Thus we droned down Highway 9 to Monroe while I kept thinking of the next great riding road opportunity that we would, inevitably, pass by. It was almost painful!

From Monroe, after the sport bikes riders paused for a smoke and a break, and then bounced the engines off their rev limiters again, we cruised toward Snoqualmie Falls. There was a pause in Duvall, where the sailor directly in front of me dropped his 600 Suzuki as we turned in to a small strip mall where the cruisers had paused. I thought he had turned too soon and hit the curb, but I was too busy taking evasive action to get a good look. Turns out he had simply turned too hard and dropped it – a simple error.

As I looked at the bike, once it had been righted and wheeled in to the lot, I could see the lower attachment for the fairing appeared broken. But no, it was not broken, merely unattached by the owner last summer after he noticed the front tire was rubbing on the
fairing. By separating the lowers, he created a large aircscoop out of the bodywork, and had not stopped to consider the cause of the rubbing, which was probably bent forks from a previous misadventure. Good grief!

From Duvall we preceded on by the most direct route possible, except for the cruiser crew, who managed a route error at the Fall City roundabout, which is easy to do. The sport bike crew, after a pause at Snoqualmie Falls, found ourselves at the side of the road
in Snoqualmie, trying to figure out what happened. Turned out there was no real plan for where to stop for lunch, and now the groups were separated. The time was well spent, as Chris gathered the folks around him for some education on riding techniques.

I suggested a McDonald’s in North Bend for lunch, as in a more traditional restaurant we would be there for the rest of the day with a group this large. Over lunch I suggested that 1.) They really needed to let me know the next time they wanted to go on a ride, as I could provide a much better route and 2.) If desired, I would lead a group back by a better route.

After lunch and many text messages, e-mails, and phone calls, it was decided we would stop at Snoqualmie Falls again to rejoin the cruisers for a group photo. In addition, none of them had ever seen the falls!

Once again we exercised the rev limiters while I prayed to the gods of mechanical mercy. Once back at the falls, the lead rider turned into the upper parking lot, which was the wrong one. The fellow in front of me, on a tricked out Hayabusa, stopped in the middle of the driveway and sat there. Eventually it dawned on me – to proceed he would need to let out the clutch and go uphill and turn right at the same time and he was not sure how to do that! Finally he figured it out and tottered ahead, allowing me to get out of the road.

At the falls, we socialized with the cruiser group, who had paused at a gun shop (!) in Fall City, posed for pictures, and had some more instruction from Chris. I invited all those who wished to follow me on a ride back to Totem Lake. I promised them they would have a great ride, and would have no idea where they were at any time. I got “my group” out on the highway with some difficulty, and we enjoyed a slow romp on some of my favorite back roads at a space elevated from before lunch, but not by much, as I was now justifiably concerned with the abilities of some of them. It was telling that the fastest rider in the group was an experienced rider on a Harley.

We arrived at a car dealership in Totem Lake unscathed, to my relief, and as predicted, none of them had the slightest idea of where they were. More pictures, conversation, and some handshakes and I directed them to the entrance of I-405. They were off to the north, while I rode home – exhausted.

Overall, I’m honored to have been invited to ride with the Navy, and I am impressed with the commitment of the Navy and the personnel to provide training and experience and to get better. But my goodness, there is a lot to be done! I hope to have more opportunity to assist in their growth in the future.

Here is a link to a slide show and video of the day that may or may not work.  🙂

Go Navy!

David Preston Copyright 2011

About david

I am a 69 year old motorsports nut who lives in Bothell, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I have been married forever and have two grown children. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Bonneville T 120 , a Triumph Thruxton, a Fiat 500S and a VW Tiguan. What else would you like to know?
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