While Midshipman Ann Chamberlain isn't old enough to buy a six-pack of beer, she is qualified to spend her summer driving a $1.1 billion guided-missile cruiser around the Atlantic Ocean.
Ms. Chamberlain, 20, is among thousands of Naval Academy midshipmen who spend up to eight weeks of the summer aboard ships at sea. But this is no luxury cruise.
For one thing, the senior's cabin is a space the size of a walk-in closet in the ship's sick bay. It is separated from the main treatment room by a curtain. At least she has no roommates. She is the only woman on a crew of about 400.
"At first it was a little uncomfortable," she said. "But it's fine now, and I don't notice it."
She eats in a second deck wardroom and works rotating, four-hour shifts in which she can be on duty at noon and midnight in the same day.
The ship's deck has few windows, making it difficult to tell day from night, and the maze of narrow passageways that all look the same make it easy to get lost. But the midshipmen get used to it, along with the rocking motion and the constant loud hum of the engine.
The summer training program is designed to give midshipmen the practical knowledge they will need to be naval officers, explained Lt. Chuck Ridgeway, the junior officer in charge of midshipman training aboard Ms. Chamberlain's ship, the USS Monterey.
The training, which midshipmen undergo each summer while at the academy, is divided into four parts, giving a range of experience from drilling and leadership to piloting ships and planes.
For Ms. Chamberlain, a systems engineering major, the cruise "makes what I have learned in class fall into place."
It also helps her and other midshipmen decide which career path to follow after graduation, Lieutenant Ridgeway said.
Ms. Chamberlain said she chose surface ships, where she can best use her engineering skills, after spending a month last summer aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in the Pacific Ocean.
She boarded the Monterey on June 23 for a one-month cruise. The ship, a 567-foot cruiser armed with Tomahawk missiles, is part of a battle group participating in war games in the Atlantic, about 100 miles off the coast of Norfolk, Va.
"The biggest thing she will get out of this is seeing what life is like for the surface ship officer," Lieutenant Ridgeway said.
On Monday, life for Ms. Chamberlain began at 3 a.m. A half-hour later, she was standing on the bridge monitoring the ship's course and speed. The glass-enclosed room was dark except for the dim glow from the equipment lights. Bright lights would make the ship too easily visible from a distance, they explained.
The ship was about 92 miles off the coast of Norfolk and lightning from a storm flashed on the horizon.
Ms. Chamberlain was the "conning officer," second in command to the deck officer. She took the course and speed orders from the deck officer and passed them along to the ship's helmsmen, the enlisted sailors who steer the ship and control its speed.
Ms. Chamberlain's work on the bridge "is probably one of the most important things on the ship for her," said Lt. j.g. Steve Pichaske, her running mate, a junior officer assigned to help her during her training. "It determines what impression she makes on the crew."
The crew is impressed.
"She's smart and is learning the job," said Lt. Ken Coleman, an officer on the bridge. "Some mids get bored with the surface Navy. It's always better to work with someone who likes this rather than someone who does not."
But some midshipmen would prefer to spend their time in underwater vessels, rather than aboard a ship. Midshipmen Robert Daniels, Abraham Younce and Arron Swenson would rather spend their summers aboard a nuclear-powered submarine, where life is even more cramped than on a surface vessel.
"It hasn't gotten on my nerves yet," said Mr. Swenson, who boarded the USS Sunfish on July 1, along with his classmates. "It takes a certain type of person to do this. You can't take anything personally, and space is really tight. You really get to know your neighbors."
Five midshipmen and another officer sleep in a room about the size of a small bathroom on bunks stacked three high along two walls. Compartments for personal belongings are under each bed.
Like Ms. Chamberlain, the midshipmen on the Sunfish are learning a variety of jobs. Mr. Daniels is working as the officer of the Torpedo Division, supervising a chief petty officer and four other enlisted men.
"This is exactly what he will be doing after graduation if he choses submarines," said Cmdr. E. Jackson Roeske, the ship's commanding officer.
The midshipmen, who will work on the Sunfish until July 24, say it's important to experience as much of the Navy outside of the academy as possible before graduation.
"If you don't go out there and look," said Mr. Daniels, "you might be disappointed by what you finally chose to do."