U.S. Navy quartermasters aboard the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) are responsible for safely navigating the waters while underway, and some have been trained in the lost art of celestial navigation.
Celestial navigation is a method of establishing the ship’s position anywhere in the world relative to celestial bodies. Using the sun, moon, planets, and stars to navigate on the ocean dates back to ancient times.
“Quartermasters aboard the John C. Stennis use global positioning systems (GPS) to plot courses and navigate,” said Quartermaster 3rd Class Javen Rogers, from Long Beach, California. “Our main focus is to compare latitude and longitude against the Voyage Management System (VMS) during our watches.”
Quartermasters who stand watch on the ship’s navigation bridge use a program called System to Estimate Latitude and Longitude Astronomically (STELLA), which uses celestial bodies to determine the ship’s position.
“When quartermasters used paper charts before computer systems, celestial navigation was more heavily relied upon than it is today,” said Rogers. “Dead reckoning, or directly calculating our position, was the way we determined the ship’s location.”
In addition to STELLA, other tools used to aid quartermasters in celestial navigation are the Nautical Almanac, a book that contains astronomic information, and marine sextants, which are used to measure the height of the stars and other celestial bodies.
Despite modern GPS, maritime navigators might need to rely on the sky in an emergency event. By using the distance measured between the celestial object and the ship, as well as math equations and star charts, a celestial navigator can pinpoint their location.
“Celestial navigation is a skill we would use if we sustained a complete loss of GPS,” said Senior Chief Quartermaster Matthew Searer, from Tucson, Arizona, the John C. Stennis’ Navigation department’s leading chief petty officer. “We would also use it if our equipment has been damaged or jammed.”
Although maritime navigation technology has improved thanks to GPS, celestial navigation is a skill that has been passed down to the current generation of quartermasters.
“I learned celestial navigation from my first chief quartermaster aboard the mine countermeasure ship USS Guardian (MCM 5),” said Searer. “He taught me the basics, and by the time I left the ship, I had mastered the skill. I also went to a 3-week school in San Diego to refine the skill.”
With the introduction of GPS, the reliance upon celestial navigation had dwindled, and Sailors were no longer being taught the skill in quartermaster “A” school, but a recent reconstruction of the curriculum has brought the skill back into the program.
“As of right now, there is no specific school for celestial navigation, but it is becoming a part of the curriculum in ‘A’ school again,” said Rogers. “Quartermaster is one of the oldest rates in the Navy, so there are senior quartermasters that have had the opportunity to learn this subject and through hands-on training. They have experienced the changes our rate has gone through in terms of the technologies we use to navigate.”
Celestial navigation uses complex math and steady hands while handling the marine sextant, but has proven itself to be a skill that leaves a lasting impression on junior Sailors.
“Celestial navigation is an awesome skill to teach and practice,” said Searer. “On my last deployment aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) in 2017, we utilized celestial navigation skills from the Arabian Gulf to the Sea of Japan and compared our work to VMS. The Sailors in the Nimitz’ Navigation department really enjoyed doing something new.”
Now that quartermasters are again being taught about celestial navigation in school, the skill can be mastered by more Sailors.
“It’s an art that went away,” said Searer. “Now, because of the dynamics of the world we live and operate in, we can use this skill anytime and still get the John C. Stennis where she needs to be.”
Celestial navigation is part science and math, part art-form, and has been around since Galileo’s time. It continues its relevancy throughout the modern Navy, proving that time-honored traditions are still beneficial to the modern age.
The John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group is deployed to the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations in support of security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.
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