Academy takes sextant out of course 'Celestial navigation' will be deleted from training next year; Replaced by computer; Move pleases Mids; some say 'cel-nav' is 'silliness'


Generations of midshipmen at the Naval Academy have been required to learn the toughest and most ancient tenets of seamanship: how to point a contraption called a sextant at a few stars, do some excruciating math calculations and plot a ship's location on a chart.

They call it "shooting stars" -- navigating ships the old-fashioned way.

Now, in a concession to the computer chip, the academy has acknowledged that there's no need for midshipmen to learn "celestial navigation." It's time to let, say, Microsoft shoot stars.

Adm. Charles R. Larson, the academy's superintendent, recently announced that he is planning to eliminate the course that has been the bane of many a midshipman's life.

After consulting with the commanders of Navy ships on what midshipmen should learn at the academy, a committee reviewing the school's curriculum decided that celestial navigation was expendable and that more time could be spent on information technology and writing.

Celestial navigation, a course within the navigation course all sophomores take, will be deleted next year. Midshipmen will be taught briefly about the theory behind navigating by the stars but will no longer need to master the sextant.

"The correlation is the slide rule vs. the calculator," said Cmdr. Mark Clemente, chairman of the leadership, ethics and law department. "Now you just push a button."

Larson said retiring the celestial navigation course is an acknowledgment of the realities of a high-tech Navy. Why shoot stars -- which is accurate only to a three-mile radius -- when a computer, linked to a satellite, can pinpoint a ship within 60 feet?

"I never used celestial navigation in the fleet," Larson said. "But I did have a commander who made me use a sextant just to prove I could do it."

Not hard, just tedious

No tears will be shed by midshipmen, who use words such as "silliness" and "unnecessary" to describe their many hours wrestling with the calculations of "cel-nav," as they call it.

"It was tough because it was a lot of number crunching," said C. B. Davis, a senior from Harford County. "It wasn't that hard, it was just tedious."

In 1974, midshipmen tried to evade the number crunching by cheating on a celestial navigation exam. Sixty-one were caught using crib sheets, and seven were expelled.

Academy spokesman Cmdr. Mike Brady, who graduated from the academy in 1979 and later spent two years as a navigator, concurred with other midshipmen, past and present.

"Next to Double-E [electrical engineering], it was the most challenging class taught here," he said.

Change does not come without moans and groans at an institution grounded in tradition.

"There are probably some people who think it's a travesty," said Capt. Bill Mason, director of the school's professional development division. "The critics will say, 'How dare you?' But it took a lot of class time to teach all this."

Some old-timers do consider it sacrilege to eliminate a class that has been taught in Annapolis since the academy was born in 1845. A group of Navy and Coast Guard retirees created the Navigation Foundation in Rockville to promote the continued practice of celestial navigation.

"It's a dying art," said Terry Carraway, a retired Navy captain and director of the foundation. "But I hate to see it change."

Carraway said it is harder for his foundation to defend celestial navigation when computerized navigation systems cost $100.

"I even have one," he said. "But I don't admit it."

Using the sextant

Over the decades, midshipmen have been taught how to point a sextant, the ancient wedge-shaped telescopic device, at four to six stars.

It must be done at "star time," usually right before dawn, with the lower half of the sextant aimed at the horizon.

Using a nautical almanac and the six-volume "sight reduction" tables, the user enters 20 pieces of data for each star -- time, distance, angle -- onto a form. This information is calculated to draw points on a chart that are then connected.

Where the lines intersect is where the ship is.

"Now you've got software in the computer that will give you the answer," Mason said. "It's sort of like using Turbo Tax to do your income tax."

What might have taken a rusty navigator 30 minutes to calculate takes 30 seconds with a computer.

Clemente said the angst over entering a new era is not without precedent.

"They probably had the same kind of battle when the Navy gave up sails," he said.

Pub Date: 5/20/98

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