EAST CHINA SEA--Celestial Navigation (CELNAV), one of the earliest forms of sea based positioning, relies on taking angles between the horizon and a reliable celestial body like the sun, moon, or certain planets and stars.
From their inception in 1798, Navy navigators and quartermasters were taught and used CELNAV until the course was completely removed from the Navy’s course curriculum in 2006, however, amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard’s (LHD 6) Navigation Department has kept the teachings alive through on-the-job training. CELNAV was officially reinstated into the Navy’s navigation training in 2015.
The Navy removed CELNAV inspection requirements for ships and eliminated CELNAV from questions on the quartermaster rating exams in the mid-1990s, said Master Chief Quartermaster James Fox, from Moyock, N.C., Navigation Department’s leading chief petty officer.
“The return of CELNAV has been a long time coming,” said Fox. “Our GPS (global positioning systems) are extremely reliable, but we need to be prepared for any contingency. Imagine if our GPS was denied or spoofed, celestial navigation is a skill which could save our ship in that type of scenario.”
Similarly, Ensign Kendrick Allen-Nelson, from Jacksonville, Fla., Navigation Department’s divisional officer, said CELNAV is the “basis of navigation,” which he is glad to see return to the Navy’s classrooms.
“It’s good that the Navy is bringing back celestial navigation,” said Allen-Nelson. “If our systems were to malfunction, it enables us to continue our mission. The only thing our Sailors need to do is pull out a chart and they will be able to keep us going.”
Fox has served in the Navy for more than 25 years, and is the only quartermaster aboard Bonhomme Richard to have learned CELNAV in a standard classroom setting.
“I joined the Navy back in 1990,” said Fox. “Upon graduating ‘A’ School in 1991, I was sent to my first ship. Back in those days we used primitive GPS to navigate the sea. The equipment we had gave us our location every eight to 10 hours. Between those gaps of connectivity, we used celestial navigation and dead reckoning to estimate our position until we got the next update. Modern GPS updates [the ship’s] bearing every millisecond, so we know where we are at any given time. These advancements in technology are the reason celestial navigation was ultimately removed from the curriculum.”
The U.S. Naval Academy’s graduating class of 2017 will be the first group of Sailors to graduate with a basic knowledge of CELNAV since its removal 11 years ago.
“I’m a tad bit jealous,” chuckled Allen-Nelson, as he described his thought about the 2017 graduating class. “I would have loved to learn celestial navigation. I’m excited for them. They will be well trained and will be able to keep the fleet going in a positive direction.”
Although CELNAV was not taught to Bonhomme Richard’s quartermasters in a conventional classroom environment, Fox explained that he has passed his knowledge down the ranks through formal instruction as well as hands-on training, “because it is an extra tool in their tool bag to keep the ship combat ready.”
Quartermaster Seaman Daija “Stella” Anderson, from Houston, said she “hopped on the opportunity” to learn CELNAV when she was introduced to the concept.
“Master Chief was adamant about teaching us how to do it,” said Anderson. “People like Master Chief who actually have that skill, are the ones we rely on to learn. Some things aren’t easy to grasp, but if you have someone like him who knows how to explain the fundamentals, it’s not too difficult.”
During the absence of the CELNAV course Fox has taught Sailors, enlisted and commissioned alike, the fundamentals to improve their navigational skills.
“Along with my quartermasters, I learned from Master Chief Fox,” said Allen-Nelson. “It’s great to see my Sailors having fun with the lessons and competing against one another. It is a skill that will definitely benefit the ship, as they enjoy doing it.”
Anderson said CELNAV reminds her of a time when navigators relied on skill rather than technology to get to their destination.
“It makes me feel like a traditional Sailor,” said Anderson. “Years ago people used the stars and a sextant to get to where they needed to be, but technology has made it easier to know where we are, almost making celestial navigation a dying tradition. I’m glad it’s back.”
The sextant, a tool which measures the angles between the horizon and celestial bodies, is an instrument Sailors throughout history used for navigating before GPS was implemented into the Navy.
Even with the reliability of modern technology, it would be in a quartermaster’s best interest to learn all aspects of CELNAV in order to combat advancements in GPS denial technology, Fox said.
“CELNAV is a relevant and useful skill,” said Fox. “Despite all modern advances, the refocusing of these skills will allow our ship’s to become even more combat ready and prepared for contingencies we have not even thought of. The addition of CELNAV requirements will ensure this valuable skill will be relevant and available for future naval warfighters.”
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