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Watchkeeper: Looking to the Heavens Once More

The Global Positioning System has been around for decades, but there are still arguments about whether navigators need to be trained in celestial navigation. As might be expected, there are the progressives and the traditionalists in this debate, with the former insisting that there are more relevant subjects with which to cram the deck officer's syllabus. For their part, those with more traditional views suggest that to be able to use a sextant is still a useful skill and valuable insurance, should all the ship's electronic systems fail. 

It is probably true to say that the average merchant ship's sextant, stowed away in the depths of a chartroom drawer rarely sees the light of day, unless the master insists upon its use from time to time. So it is interesting to note that the United States Chief of Naval Operations has intervened to reinstate celestial navigation into the USN core curriculum and require it to become an "Officer Professional Core Competence". 

Celestial navigation may still be taught to merchant mariners and clings onto its role in STCW, but has not been taught to US naval officers since 2006. Both classroom instruction and personal study along with practical training afloat will now form part of the warship navigator's course, just like it did in pre-GPS days.  

Increasing concerns about cyber threats are said to be the reason that the sextant will be an important tool of the naval navigator in the future, even aboard warships crammed with every last electronic device. But the US navy also points out that cyber threats are not the only reason that electronic systems fail, with system degradation, electrical failures, satellite malfunctions and other reasons why the convenient GPS may be inoperable or racked with error. 

So if the US Navy believes that these traditional skills should not be permitted to fade away, then those operating merchant ships maybe ought to ensure the same. At the same time, skill with a sextant really does need to be practised if it is to be firstly learned and then maintained.  

But it also can be rewarding from a personal point of view, navigating by the heavens during a long, deep-sea passage and making a landfall. Merely reading a few figures off a GPS might produce enviable accuracy, but the sense of achievement that you get when your star position lines produce a tiny "cocked hat" will probably be missing. 

The issue of cyber threats and jamming really does need to be taken seriously, with threats emanating from criminals, terrorists and right up to hostile governments all developing capabilities that could cause electronic mayhem in transport. The self-sufficiency of the celestial navigator provides what might be described as "armour plating" against such threats, regardless of from where they might arise. Heavenly bodies are back on the agenda!