Finding Our Way Home (Again):

By The Maritime Executive 12-18-2012 02:42:00

The U.S. Coast Guard’s notification of the termination of the LORAN-C signal also “signals” the end of an era for a certain generation of mariners. Couched appropriately inside a “SAFETY ALERT,” the news might evoke certain memories for older mariners and serve as a word of caution for newer professionals.

It wasn’t too long ago – Okay, I admit that it’s been almost 30 years – that I found myself at the foot of the gangway of my first ship assignment in Port Canaveral, FL. Armed with a Third Mate’s license (the ink slowly drying) and plenty of enthusiasm, I dragged my sea bag up and reported to the old man on the USNS “Hoyt S. Vandenberg.” He looked me over suspiciously and then, after telling me that my primary mission on board the vessel would be “to give all traffic a wide berth,” sent me on my way. The ensuing six months would prove to be interesting, to say the least.

The Vandy, as we affectionately called her, was a Range Instrumentation Vessel. In layman’s terms, that meant that we tracked – using three giant RADAR dishes and a superstructure that literally bristled with then-high tech gear – missile shots and other various things that might fall from the sky. We were also equipped with something that they didn’t teach us about at the Academy – a thing called Ship’s Inertial Navigation System or, SINS, for short. The unit was extremely accurate, perhaps the most precise device of its kind at that time, and very few surface ships had it on board, to the best of my knowledge. It was – at that time – primarily a navigation tool for nuclear submarines.

It is probably needless to add that rookie Third Mates (that would be me) were not allowed to touch the unit. An RCA technician maintained and tuned it when necessary. On the rare occasions that it went down, it was a big deal. The RCA guy would invariably laugh at us as we fired up the LORAN unit and dragged out the beat-up old Navy sextants. During critical operations – I’d tell you but I’d also have to kill you – SINS was absolutely required at all times. I was expected to get a SINS fix every thirty minutes under normal circumstances while steaming underway. When we were holding station or “running lines,” we literally got fixes every thirty seconds.

Using large scale, small area plotting sheets (a nautical mile might be as big as two square inches), we had a very small window of allowed error on our course lines. This, as it was pointed out by the captain (smiling broadly), was really important when the “object(s)” came hurtling out of the sky about one-quarter mile from our position. Positions were never discussed in terms of degrees and minutes, but rather minutes and seconds of latitude and longitude, especially in the presence of the steward’s department when they served meals on the bridge during 24/7 operations. The moral of all of that was that the junior mates (that would be me) began to rely on the unit exclusively and it became rather easy to stand a lazy watch in terms of navigational activities. Any of you younger, active mariners should follow along closely here.

In later years, I sailed on a variety of platforms – mostly tankers – equipped with more pedestrian navigation equipment. We had LORAN-C, of course, and at various points along the way, other ground-based systems such as DECCA and OMEGA, as well. The two latter e-systems are long gone. I’m sure that in their day, own way and in the right location, they were accurate and useful devices. One of them – I honestly can’t remember which – I literally spent hours reading the technical manual and eventually got to a point (using confusing correction tables and taxing the extreme outer envelope of my skill package) where I could get a fix using three LOP’s. It was a royal pain-in-the-you-know-what. After about three years of being primarily used as a place to balance my coffee cup, they (my employers) unbolted it from the bridge console and got rid of it. I wasn’t sorry to see it go. And now, I see that LORAN-C will soon join it in the recycling bin.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s Mayte Medina; resident expert on all things IMO, mariner training and credentialing, always gives a nice lecture on what is transpiring around the world in terms of expected STCW changes and other important marine qualifications. I’ve listened to it in person a few times and could now probably recite parts of it verbatim. In her field of expertise, I know of no one more knowledgeable. No one. My favorite part is when she talks about the proposal (from Japan, I think) to lessen or eliminate the training requirements for celestial navigation in terms of STCW qualifications. Starting off by talking about her parent’s admonition to “never talk religion in mixed company at the dinner table,” she then (and she can be downright funny in her delivery of potentially dry subject matter) immediately Segways right into how some American mariners consider celestial navigation to be nothing short of “religion.” And, she’s right.

Medina’s presentation also usually drifts into another amusing anecdote about not upsetting the very people who control the switch to the global GPS system (that would be us). And as LORAN-C quickly approaches its planned obsolescence, we find ourselves left with a somewhat more limited menu of navigation choices. It is here where I wonder if we are collectively ready for the switch to be turned to the OFF position. I’m actually not convinced that we are.

LORAN-C was the staple of e-navigation for coastwise mariners in the 1980’s, although some ships were lucky enough to have the early SATNAV devices. I distinctly remember the RayNav 6000 LORAN receivers that were commonly found on board many vessels in that time. Easy to use – unlike their complicated predecessors – the units were reliable and provided accurate fixes. You couldn’t rely on them totally, however, and most of us didn’t. In 1982 and when I earned my Second Mate’s ticket, I went down to Baker Lyman in Houston (in those days, I think, it was right down the hall from the exam center) and purchased a Tamaya Sextant for about $1,200. That was a lot of money in those days, but it was also my understanding that a Second Mate who wanted to be considered “professional” should own and carry his or her personal sextant to each ship assignment. I wonder how prevalent that attitude is in today’s GPS-dominated world?

It was less than convenient, but I never failed to bring that sextant along with me when I reported on board. I practiced sun lines and occasionally took stars, mostly to ease the boredom, but also because the e-navigation systems we had on my 1944-built tanker often did not work properly. Thinking it might be a good idea to keep sharp for those infrequent events, I would tape a small area plotting sheet to the chart table right beside the chart in use, and compare my fixes to those achieved using LORAN. Eventually – and I am not making this up – I discontinued the practice after being accused of “messing around on watch” (a G-rated translation of his advice to me) by one of the Masters that I sailed for.

I’m not sure where the STCW proposal (to ease the requirements for celestial navigation training) is going at this point, but count me among those who think that it is a bad idea. Mayte Medina would probably say, tongue-in-cheek, that “He’s got religion.” But, that’s not it, at all. The demise of LORAN-C, as far as I can see, leaves just one primary option for e-navigation left. And because GPS – and the other acronyms for similar systems – was first developed for military applications, the accuracy of these signals will never be guaranteed. I have been told that at certain times in the past that deliberate distortions have been introduced to facilitate the needs of those who control the signals. Beyond that, it just isn’t a good idea to put all your eggs into one basket.

The termination of the LORAN-C signal – done in accordance with the Obama Administration's pledge to eliminate unnecessary Federal programs and systems – probably won’t be a big deal for most mariners, although I understand that it is still widely used by fishermen and sailboats. Still, the cost of a GPS receiver is relatively cheap and they are readily available to just about anyone who wants one. For my part, I honestly have no idea how I survived on the highways without one for the first 50 years of my life.

For an old guy like me, this truly is the end of an era. That said, were I still at sea or contemplating a career out there, I promise you that I would not be abandoning my celestial navigation skills any time soon. Finally, and when I first saw the Coast Guard’s announcement, I went surfing on the Internet to see if I could find a picture of one of those RAYNAV 6000 units. I am happy to report that you can still get one on eBay for about USD $499, but I’m also thinking that you might want to wait for a better price. – MarEx

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Joseph Keefe is the Editor in Chief of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with comments on this editorial at jkeefe@maritime-executive.com and/or join the Maritime Executive ‘Linked In’ group at by clicking http://www.linkedin.com/e/gis/47685>