The Fix  

Navigating, or finding your way at sea, can be fairly simple or very complicated.  It all depends on what you are navigating, where you are, and what aids there are for you to use.  I’ll give some examples.  

Back in the 1960s, navigating a small sailboat of 24 feet off the coast of Southern California was fairly easy.  The mountains on the coast were a tremendous help.  During the day you could identify the physical landmarks of Mount Palomar and Santa Catalina Island.  For another, you could identify the various towns on the coast by their size.  If you were in close enough, a rough bearing could be taken on recognized landmarks.  Most boat compasses can give a good enough bearing to tell you where you were within a few miles.  That was usually good enough for small boat sailors.  

At night, the job was still fairly simple.  Los Angeles and San Diego were huge landmarks with all their lights.  As you went up or down the coast you just counted the towns north of San Diego, or south of Los Angeles.  That blacked out area on the coast was the Marine base at Camp Pendleton.  All in all, if you were within sight of the coast, you felt comfortable with knowing your location.  Very easy navigating.  

It got interesting once you sailed south of Tijuana, Mexico.  There was no electricity.  At night there was no way of telling how close you were to the coast, or where you were.  You would think you were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  All of a sudden there would be a pair of headlights not too far off (about four miles) on the unpaved road that runs along the coast.  

The only navigating aid on that part of the Mexican coast was Todos Santos Island.  When you saw that in the daylight, you knew that Ensenada was on the shore opposite the island.  At night there was no way of telling where you were.  At least you didn’t have to worry about going aground.  The waters offshore were deep, very deep.  The weather was also very good with almost no fear of sudden storms.  Contrast this with the Gulf of Mexico coast of Florida, where you can wade knee deep in some places a couple of miles offshore.  

Only a little over twenty years ago I got to go fishing in the Gulf of Mexico south of Tallahassee, Florida.  My friend Bill Eaves took my wife and I out in his 23 foot boat.  Bill was a very experienced sailor.  He was also a Senior Chief Petty Officer in the Naval Reserve.  I marveled at his seamanship.  

We left St. Marks on a heading just east of due south.  He never looked at a chart.  He just ran out on a compass heading until the fathometer told him the bottom was at the 40 foot depth level.  He then stopped to fish for a bit.  He then turned the boat to the southeast to follow the 40 foot depth curve.  

At the end of the day he headed back to shore on a different heading.  After a while the St. Marks lighthouse came into sight.  All without referring to a chart.  He really knew the waters in that area.  This whole coast of the Gulf of Mexico is shallow.  There is a real risk of running aground.  Many people tear their propeller off, or the bottom unit of their outboard motor.  The coast is low lying and there are almost no nautical aids to go by except channel markers.  They are often difficult to find against the background of a low shoreline.  

Almost twenty years later, I went fishing with my friend Alfred.  He has a 25 foot Chris Craft.  The times had changed.  Everyone has a GPS these days (Global Positioning System).  It is an electronic receiver, using satellite signals, that gives the boater an exact location of his boat.  It also made me nervous.  

Every time we went fishing, Alfred relied on his GPS.  He never got out a chart.  I am not comfortable without a chart to use.  I usually drove his boat while he either got the gear ready to fish, or he cleaned up the boat to go back into harbor.  He went from point to point on that GPS.  The first and last point was the entrance marker to the small fishing  town of Steinhatchee.  From there on it was from fishing hole to fishing hole stored on his GPS.  I like to have a chart to look at.  Everyone with a GPS uses the thing to steer a course by.  Those people I know who like to fish for grouper (most of them), have to go thirty miles offshore to fish for them.  

I gave Alfred my chart of the local coast.  After all, I didn’t even own a boat.  I just like maps and charts.  I plotted a course to and from the Steinhatchee entrance to his favorite fishing holes.  You never can tell when he might need that chart.  

One man I know seemed foolish to me.  He used to go out thirty miles to fish using only his GPS.  He didn’t even have a compass on his boat, much less a chart.  Needless to say, I never asked to go fishing with him.  He never thought of the possibility of the batteries going dead in that GPS unit.  

All this has been small boat fishing.  Large naval vessels are a different story.  I went to officer training in the late 1960s.  That was after my California navigating on a small boat, and before my Florida experiences.  

Modern Navy ships these days all use satellite navigation, which is GPS (Global Positioning System).  Back in my Navy days, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this was akin to Star Wars technology, not even imaginable.  What I have to relate deals with the good old days….. before GPS.  

Finding your way along a coast using landmarks is called piloting.  I did all right in that class in officer’s school.  Real navigating involved the use of a LORAN, which uses radio signals that form an invisible criss-cross across areas of the ocean, or celestial navigation.  

LORAN uses a receiver much like a radio and is fairly accurate.  Unfortunately, it did not cover all areas of the oceans.  It was also subject to interpretation.  That is fine if you are far at sea and were not in danger of grounding.  

Celestial Navigation uses the stars to find your way.  It has been around for a few hundred years.  We’re talking the about the tools that Christopher Columbus used, only a bit more refined.  It is very accurate.  It also has a serious drawback.  It is difficult to master.  

I could use a LORAN in a classroom situation fairly well.  Celestial navigation was almost impossible for me to get good at while I was in school.  All the practice problems I did were to no avail.  I always plotted my imaginary ship on some mountaintop.  Fortunately my failure at celestial navigation did not prevent me from becoming a naval officer.  It seems all Navy ships have one officer who is assigned as a Navigator.  

At sea, when I came on the bridge to relieve the Officer of the Deck (OOD), I checked the chart.  On it was plotted the ship’s course, as laid out by the ship’s navigator.  Unless there were instructions to the contrary, I stayed on that course.  Every half-hour I marked where I estimated the ship’s position to be.  That is called “dead reckoning”, or a DR plot.  

If the ship was out of LORAN range, the ship only gets a good fix just before and after sunrise when the navigator and one of his quartermasters “shot” the stars with a sextant.  The same instrument that John Paul Jones would have used.  

My first ship was up the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.  I never did get an opportunity to “conn” or drive that ship.  Of course every time we got under way in the river we were at general quarters (battle stations) and we got shot at and we shot back.  Not a good scenario to learn ship handling.  

My second ship was a minesweeper.  I did get to conn the ship a lot, but I was just a spectator when we were out of sight of land or out of range of radar.  Out that far, the navigator did all the navigating.  

My third ship was the large fleet oiler.  We were at sea a lot.  When I was OOD, I usually had a junior lieutenant or an even more junior ensign standing watch under my supervision.  I usually had the same officer standing watch with me every day.  They were designated as the Junior Officer of the Watch, or “JOOD”.  Some OODs kept the conn all the time they were on watch.  They wanted absolute control of the ship.  I preferred to give the conn to the junior lieutenant.  

This had one side effect.  One ensign on our ship came to me with a problem.  His OOD never gave him the conn.  He said he would never qualify as Officer of the Deck if he were never given the conn.  He had talked with my JOOD and learned that I gave him all the ship handling experience he wanted.  He wanted me to go to the captain and get him changed to my watch.  I did this and he did qualify as OOD before I left the ship.  

As Officer of the Deck, I was still responsible for the ship in the absence of the captain from the bridge, even if I gave the conn, or control to a junior officer.  Basically, I made sure that he ran the ship under my supervision.  As the JOOD became more experienced, I did not interfere with his running the ship.  At least as far as orders to the helmsman and the engine orders.  

A JOOD who was becoming proficient in his job would report any ships that appeared, either visually, or on radar.  He would then explain if they would interfere with our passage and what he thought we should do as far as a course change.  This was to ensure all ships passed safely.  

I mention all this, because as I trained my junior officers they became more proficient.   I had less to do and became more of a spectator.  Don’t get me wrong, I was proud of my JOODs.  The problem was that I was bored on a long passage.  There was no land in sight for days or weeks and the ship sailed mostly on a straight course.  

One day I was in Lieutenant Bob Allee’s stateroom.  I saw a sextant box stored in his locker.  I asked him about it.  He was the only officer aboard with his own sextant.  It seems Bob was a former Merchant Marine ship’s officer.  All Merchant Marine Officers have to be proficient in celestial navigation.  I looked at his sextant.  It was a German made Plath, the best there is.  I had an idea.  I asked Bob if he would teach me celestial navigation.  I told him about all that time I had on watch and I was anxious to learn more.  He agreed.

I talked to the navigator.  He told me I could use one of the half dozen sextants in the chart room.  It was amusing to me that he actually had a nice Plath sextant.  The problem was that the Plath was very expensive.  He was afraid of dropping, and paying for, the expensive instrument.  He used an old Navy sextant.  I would too.  I was also amused to see that my sextant was last calibrated in 1945, the year I was born.

The next time I was on watch, Bob came up to give me a lesson.

The navigator and his quartermaster were taking a noon sun line.  After all, the sun is a star.  It is not as accurate as shooting three stars and getting three lines that cross exactly in one spot, but it is a useful aid. 

The problem was that I could not depend on taking a quartermaster away from his job every time I wanted to take a sighting.  You see, the quartermaster held a clipboard and watch.  He recorded the navigator’s readings from the sextant and the exact time.  How was I going to do this?

Bob laughed.  He said there was another way to do it, single-handed.  I was intrigued by this.  He said all I had to do was hold a stopwatch in the same hand I used to hold the bottom of the sextant with.  When I took a reading on a star, or the sun, I would activate the stopwatch.  I would then walk to the chart room.  Then I would look at the actual true time (Greenich Mean Time), record the time, and then subtract how many seconds it was since I took my sighting.  Worked like a charm.   

That was the easy part.  The part of navigating that scared me was the books.  There was the Nautical Almanac, and HO 214.  HO 214 is a book of nothing but columns of numbers, from cover to cover.  Bob made out a work sheet that made navigating a step by step routine.  All I did was go from step one through about step 35.  When I had done that I had one observation.  A sun line is one observation.  When it is “star time” in the half-hour before sunrise and after sunset I would have to shoot three stars, if possible.  That would mean three work sheet problems to do.  Whew!  

My first sun line, one observation, took me twenty minutes to solve.  I was proud of myself.  Within a few days I could do three observations in five minutes.  When the captain would come to the bridge he would automatically look at the chart.  All of a sudden there were pencilled notes on the chart saying “LOP,” or “line of position.”  He never asked me about the sun lines.  All he knew was that whoever made those notes (the present OOD) knew a little more about the ship’s position than the other OODs who did not do this.  

I think the navigator was a bit put off by my progress.  He knew that I was doing my sightings without any help from his quartermasters.  If I was on watch at “star time” I shot my stars even if he and his quartermaster were shooting theirs.  

My four-hour watches on the bridge were boring no longer.  Every half-hour I shot a sun line and marked it on the chart.  If I was going to be on the bridge during the hours when it is possible to shoot stars and get a good fix, I had to make preparations.  That required research.  First I had to find the hour angle.  I won’t bother you with details, but it involved knowing how many degrees from Greenich, England we were on such and such a date.  With that I would go into HO 265.  With that hour angle, and our approximate latitude,  I could look up the best stars to look for and where to look for them in the sky.  

I was always amazed to find those stars about where the books said they would be.  Once I took a sight with the sextant, I would know exactly where the ship was, based on the tables in the books.  I got where I could shoot three stars, do the math, and plot our position, within five minutes.  Well before the navigator was finished.  

My duties as Officer of the Deck did not suffer.  I had one of the best trained JOODs on the ship.  After all, I trained him.  Knowing how to take a fix gave me an inner feeling of self confidence.  

One night the ship was sailing to the southeast from the Gulf of Tonkin towards the Philippines.  There was no LORAN reception in that part of the South China Seas.  Hainan Island, to the left of us, was so low that it did not show up on the radar to give us a fix that way.  The sky had been overcast for a couple of days.  We were sailing on “dead reckoning.”  We didn’t really know where we were, but we had a pretty good idea.  The navigator would come up at star time, look at the solid cloud cover, then go back below.  

Some time that night, we sailed out from under the cloud cover.  I was on watch as OOD at the time.  It was a very unusual night.  There was a brilliant moon and there seemed to be a distinct horizon.  I knew that any horizon in moonlight was not supposed to be accurate, but if I got three stars to cross at one point, I was certain it would be a good fix.  

I scrambled to look up the stars to shoot for the hour at hand.  I picked my stars and got my sextant.  I got three good sightings.  When I worked out the problem I had a perfect three star fix.  It was the first good fix in two days.  I called the captain and informed him that I had a fix.  He came to the bridge and looked at the chart.

   The captain was dubious about my having taken a fix without doing it at sunset.  It was the chart itself that backed me up.  Right there under my fix, the Gulf of Tonkin shelf dropped off into a deep underwater canyon.  Walking into the chart room, I looked at the recording paper of the fathometer. 

Sure enough, we had just crossed over that drop-off.  It was one of my proudest moments as a naval officer.  It meant I was a real sailor.  I think that has more real value than just being a naval officer.

I am a pack rat by nature.  I hate to throw anything away.  About a year ago I found that original navigational work sheet in a box.  I typed it on a sheet of paper.  I don’t know why.  I don’t have any expectation of taking any star sightings.  In a small room upstairs in my house are shelves and shelves of books.  There is the American Practical Navigator, by Bowditch, HO 214, and an old, out of date Nautical Almanac.  I never did buy my own sextant.  Sometimes when I go in that room to get a book I see those three volumes up on the top shelf, next to each other, and it reminds me of a time when I was a real seaman.
Me, with sextant in 1972 


Tom Sparkman   October 20 , 2002