CelNav

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This story doesn’t really have a point, but I was asked in a conversation recently if I had ever learned to navigate by the stars, and I didn’t really get to answer, and there is a pandemic going on. The short answer is yes.

Back at the Naval Academy, I was on the sailing team and over the summer we would compete in various races with the team. That year I competed in the Marion-Bermuda Race, which runs in the years that the more famous Newport-Bermuda race doesn’t. The exciting part of this race, unlike its more famous cousin, is that it is a celestial navigation race. You got more points (or more accurately weren’t penalized) if you navigated the entire race using celestial navigation instead of GPS.

So that was pretty exciting! We got to learn how to use a sextant and stuff! I think I was officially the assistant navigator on this little journey, but firmly the celnav guy, and dove right into it. I was already firmly a Bowditch fan, so this was a lot of fun. I learned all about how celestial navigation worked, got pretty familiar with a variety of stars, and would plot sun lines by hand even though we wound up using a computer program to try to plot star shots. Before the Bermuda race we also did the Annapolis-Newport race, and although that was a GPS race we took the opportunity to practice our celnav skills and it was all pretty great! (that photo up top is of me doing navigation stuff on the sailboat)

Then came the actual race itself, which was overcast the whole time. It is pretty hard to do celestial navigation when the sky is covered in clouds. We got exactly one star shot during the trip, and we frankly weren’t sure whether to trust that more or our dead-reckoning position more. The most significant lesson I learned on that trip is you can dead-reckon your way across an ocean. The rule was that you could turn on your GPS within like, 30 miles of Bermuda, so when we thought we were within 30 miles we turned it on, discovered we were really like 50 or something out, turned it back off again, and repeated that process until we were in fact like 30 miles out. We got second in the race! Pretty good!

Anyways, flash forward about five years when I was a submarine officer and held the title of Assistant Operations Officer which, due to reasons, put me in nominal charge of navigation department. My most significant task in that role was approving the maintenance schedule, which is how I discovered that we had an annual maintenance item to check the ship’s sextant. This is how I discovered that we had a ship’s sextant. That was cool! A sextant onboard! Sextants are cool! I have no idea why we had one. I mean, presumably in was in case of emergencies, but I really cannot conceive of the scenario where a submarine would use a sextant. Like first the GPS system would have to go down, and then with all the backup and inertial navigation systems on board, and then the fact we would have to surface to use the sextant, there just isn’t any way we’d use it. I also had trouble figuring out how you would actually go about using it, even if you were on the surface. Not that anyone on board would know how. Except, you know, for me.

Since I knew how to use a sextant, navigation division decided to have a training on celestial navigation, which I would lead. I was looking forward to this, the division was looking forward to this, it was great! Until I was in the wardroom happily putting together my training PowerPoint. I didn’t usually hang out in the wardroom, almost entirely due to reasons like what happened. The squadron ops officer, who used to be our navigator, was on board for an exercise or something. He saw me putting together the Power Point, and asked what I was doing. I explained what I was doing, and then he asked why the hell I was doing that.

There’s actually a lot of use in learning celestial navigation, even if there is no conceivable reason a submarine would ever use a sextant. There’s a lot of really basic navigation concepts that you get to flex in interesting ways. And lemme tell ya I think submarine crews (maybe not navigation division itself but officers for sure) lack knowledge in basic navigation concepts. You have all these systems and computers that put a lot of it out of sight and out of mind, and so people just come to expect a magical box to give them their position and don’t think much about it, but things can go wrong and it is important to both understand what the magical box was doing and the thought behind it so you could actually rely on the magic box. Somethings the magic didn’t work right and when you run a $2 billion submarine aground people don’t really accept the excuse that “well I didn’t really question the magic box.” So there was a lot of use to it! Plus people were excited for it! No one is ever excited about training!

But the SQOPS apparently didn’t approve of celestial navigation training despite my reasoning. But that didn’t matter, he’s not in my chain of command. But then I guess he told the XO, who yelled at the current navigator, who was my boss, and who yelled at me. This was mildly annoying because the navigator APPROVED the training plan! That said I was going to be training on celestial navigation! And now he was yelling at me for trying to carry out the training plan he approved! It’s things like this that made me quit the Navy. But thankfully nav bought my “it’s really training on basic navigation concepts¬†disguised as celestial navigation training” and so I got to do the training and play with a sextant and everyone loved it and it was a great Power Point to boot.