Celestial navigation: Lost art or missing skill?

Oct 23, 2014 by Capt. Brian Luke

Every navigator knows where the yacht is leaving from and where it is going. It is the bit in between — figuring out where a vessel is in relation to its departure and arrival points — that is the science and art of navigation.

Before the development of electronic navigation position fixing such as Decca, Loran and GPS, yacht captains relied on celestial or astronavigation to determine their position offshore. Their skills with a sextant, chronometer, nautical almanac and sight reduction tables became the pinnacle of the art of navigation.

Today, the use of celestial navigation by a yacht captain has given way to the convenience of Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) powered by GPS. Although every captain who received their ocean rating has learned the techniques of astronavigation, most don’t use this essential skill.

It could be argued that a busy charter yacht fills the crew’s day with serving guests, servicing the vessel and cleaning. Of course, safely navigating the vessel during a busy charter is of the utmost importance.

Therein lies the potential problem. We are so busy that we have a tendency to rely on electronic systems as our primary means of navigation. The thought of adding another level of stress to an already stressful charter is not high on anyone’s list. It’s much simpler to use the electronic systems. After all, isn’t that what technology is supposed to do, reduce our workload or stress?

Wait a minute. Let’s make sure we haven’t forgotten something here, like the fundamentals. Yes, our primary means of navigation is the old fashioned paper chart, not electronic navigation. If you’re near shore, any competent yachtmaster can handle this type of coastal navigation.

But what about when we are out of sight of shore? How do you back up your electronic navigation system? Actually, the electronic navigation system should be backing up your paper charts, so this answers the question, “Why all this fuss over celestial navigation when we have such reliable electronic navigation?”

Let’s look at this from an aviation perspective. In the airline industry, the pilot of an Airbus 320 primarily navigates by a combination of electronic systems. The A320 uses a system known as ADIRU (Air Data Inertial Reference Unit), GPS, and a ground-based system called VOR or VHF Omnidirectional Range.

The Airbus also uses INS or Inertial Navigation System. INS is a form of dead reckoning where gyros and accelerometers are used to compute changes in position. The INS feeds into the flight management computer, which is used to cross-check the GPS position, and can be used as a primary navigation source should the GPS signal be lost or corrupted.

Therefore, airliners use many simultaneous forms of electronic navigation to cross check each other. So if the U.S. government decides to shut off the Global Positioning System, airliners can still navigate safely to their destination. Hence, airliners like the Airbus use electronic navigation as the primary means of navigation.

What does that all mean for us in the yachting community? We don’t use electronics as our primary source of navigational guidance because we don’t have the same type of electronic equipment on board yachts that independently indicate our position using differing technologies. If the U.S. government turns off the GPS system, then all we have left when land or objects are out of sight is celestial navigation.

I recently attending the YQP (large-Yacht Qualification Panel) meeting in Antibes where MCA-approved training providers get together, along with the MCA, and discuss certification and training issues relating to yachting qualifications. MCA officials expressed their concern about the lack of celestial skills they have observed during oral examinations for master level Certificates of Competency (CoC).

It was unfortunate, although somewhat humorous, when the MCA examiner explained some of the candidates’ answers to their questions pertaining to celestial navigation. (One Master CoC candidate, when handed the sextant, actually held it upside down.)

Because of this lack of celestial skills, the MCA now requires all master-level candidates to have taken and passed the MCA celestial exam within the preceding 12 months of their oral exam. Seeing as many mariners today don’t regularly use or practice their celestial skills and the fact many master oral candidates have not taken a celestial course in the preceding five to 10 years, this makes some sense.

Having the privilege of running a training center allows me to meet crew from all over the world. I can say from this interaction with our community that one of the weak links is skillful celestial navigation. A celestial navigation course is not required by the MCA (only the exam) but I find most crew request a refresher course in order to regain confidence in this fine art.

Celestial navigation: We still need it. And if you can get some time to practice, you may find that it keeps your career on course.


Brian Luke is chief operations officer for International Crew Training in Ft. Lauderdale. He is an airline captain and holds a USCG 1600/3000-ton master’s ticket. ICT trains crew for entry-level through 3000 ITC Master licenses, engineering and interior operations. Comments on this column are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.