After Twenty Years, Naval Academy Brings Back Celestial Navigation

18 Feb

After removing it from their standard curriculum for nearly two decades, the navy has decided that the threat of cyberterrorism, electrical pulse attacks, lightening strikes, and other potential blackouts of the GPS system warrant reinstating the age-old art. The US Coast Guard, which stripped it from their curriculum a decade ago, is following suit.

Should cruisers be taking a hint?

You can read about it in the Capital Gazette or The Washington Post

The GPS system has never been “brought down,” according to the government, but local disturbances and drop-outs are commonplace. And it’s conceivable that the system might be brought down intentionally by the good guys so the bad guys can’t use it. My mole in the commercial shipping world says they have to be up on their celestial for any trip to the Persian Gulf, for just these reasons.

My first time cruising, in the eighties, our whole trip across the Pacific was by sextant, but I wasn’t doing the navigating. Since then I’ve always carried a sextant with the tables and a nautical almanac, and I’ve occasionally taken a few sights, just to convince myself that, in a pinch, I might, sort of, probably, eventually, be able to figure out where the hell I was, more or less.

Maybe it’s time to get more serious about it? If nothing else, it might be fun.

This article was syndicated from The Adventures of the Vessel Condesa


  1. R. Quesada

    I attended the Naval Academy in Argentina, Celestial Navigation and Astronomy are still required and practiced aboard while your are a cadet. Later on in life I was once a Chief Officer aboard a merchant vessel that lost all the antennas and vents and everything that was sticking out during a fierce 3 days storm (bye bye electronic navigation) Fortunately the HO 229 tables, star finder and the sextants 9 in plural) were still high and dry. What kind of officer can effectively sail or command a ship with no knowledge of basic Celestial Navigation ?

  2. Peter Keane

    I’m retired from the Coast Guard. While I retired as a CDR, I was for 10 years a Quartermaster. Celestial Navigation was part of the job, although few really mastered or practiced it unless necessary. I loved it, and to this day still practice in the back yard using an artificial horizon (quite accurate) or a bubble scope (not so much).

    My wife and I take cruises about two times a year and I always pack my sextant, tables, and plotting sheets. I then compare my results with where GPS says we are. When going through the receiving line I always seek out one of the mates or the Captain and ask the approximate height of eye of my stateroom, whatever the level, or of the highest open deck. I get a puzzled look at first, but then a knowing smile.

    While the Coast Guard had courses on celestial navigation we all were required to complete, none were very good in my opinion. They were all too “cook book”, with poor explanations of celestial theory. So I basically taught myself celestial theory and practical celestial navigation using “The Primer of Navigation” by George W. Mixter, now in its 7th edition, but first published in 1940. While it covers all phases of navigation, the sections on celestial navigation are amazingly well presented, and there are plenty of problems to solve at the end of each chapter to test your knowledge. I highly recommend obtaining a copy if you’re serious about becoming proficient in celestial navigation.

  3. Clark Beek

    True it is just a 3-hour introduction this year, but…

    “The first midshipmen to receive training were juniors during this past summer school. Future classes will learn theories of celestial navigation during an advanced navigation course. And the Class of 2017 will be the first to graduate with the reinstated instruction.

    But it’s only three hours of celestial navigation — so students won’t be skilled with sextants.

    “This is the first semester we added it in, so we’re just baby-stepping it,” said Lt. Christine Hirsch, who teaches navigation at the academy. “We just added the theory, but we really do have the capabilities to expand.”

  4. Martin Faga

    It’s a stretch to say that the Naval Academy is teaching celestial again. The new course is one session of three hours where Midshipmen get a sense of what is a sextant and celestial navigation. Before GPS, Midshipmen were taught navigation in a two semester course and practiced it on a summer cruise on a USNA Yard Patrol boat.

  5. Marina Matic

    I am a maritime training instructor and I teach Celestial navigation for 10 years in Croatia. It has never been excluded from our curriculum but it was very hard to get students to show any interest towards “old school” and fight against “we have GPS” mentality. So when in middle of the explaining how we can easily get latitude by observing Polaris I received email with link to this article. And my heart skipped a beat. My beloved Celestial is getting it on. I will no longer look like crazy person when I go outside on deck to measure height with sextant. Thank you for this. The reasons for bringing it back are not nice, but I can’t deny that Celestial needs more attention and respect then it gets. Mr. Nautics Marina Matic

  6. A Renom

    Hum the article states that the GPS system was never brought down. However in a regatta in 1991 during dessert storm all of us who had our trusted Magellan 1000 GPSs had no signal for 24 hours. Back then we all could navegate without a GPS but because of that experience I allway practice traditional navigation. It was never brought down for the military may be.

  7. Jose Llufrio, JN

    US Sail and power Squadrons are a very good resource for learning celestial navigation. You learn the basics, and then keep practicing. Get in touch with your nearest US Sail or Power Squadron

  8. Dimon Pole

    I didn’t know that, but honestly, it’s just plain stupid for the Navy to abandon the celestial navigation program! To depend solely on technology, in our age of computer terrorism’s treat is not a…, how to say it mildly, … wise choice. Albeit, it’s what our military is famous for.

  9. P/Stf/C Jarel Ervin, JN

    UNITED STATES SAIL AND POWER SQUADRONS have been and still do teach celestial navigation classes for only material costs.
    When WW2 started Power Squadron members were called upon to teach celestial navigation at the Great Lakes Naval officers school.

  10. Clark Beek

    This post is bringing out some great sentiments and stories! Motivated by the subject myself, I looked into classes in the area, which there are, but at about $1200. This book, Celestial Navigation: A complete home study course ( seems to get good reviews. I’ve always had Mary Blewitt’s book, Celestial Navigation for Yachtsmen, and I was able to stumble through the process with her instructions, but I think I need something more, either a class or a bigger book. My father is a mathematician, but the gift must have skipped a generation.

  11. Pete Helsell - US Navy - Retired

    Oops – can’t believe my spelling – I meant to point out the “redundancy” of today’s modern equipment – e.g. airlines and (I’m guessing) ships carry multiple GPS units.

  12. Pete Helsell

    I was a navigator for the Navy flying C-130’s to/from and around Antarctica in the late 70’s with Operation Deep Freeze. We had a few electronic pieces of nav equipment (INS, Loran, doppler, radar to name most of them), but there were a few times when our navigators had to rely solely on celestial navigation (we used a bubble sextant so we could take celestial shots at altitude and all night long). I once found a quonset hut out at “Dome Charlie” on the polar plateau using only a sextant (I used Francis Chichester’s offset landfall method) when all of my other equipment went tits up.
    I also spent a few years flying as a commercial navigator where I regularly used celestial navigation. While with the airlines, I had a fun opportunity to jump seat home from Paris on Pan AM – the knowledge developed by their early navigators (including Dr Lunn, I’m sure) was extraordinary – they were truly the masters of aircraft navigation.
    With today’s amazing electronics (e.g. GPS), there is such tremendous accuracy and reduncacy that it is unlikely that today’s crews will suffer from all of their electronic nav equipment going TU like our’s did. The thought of the GPS system being “brought down” is sobering, though.
    So…couldn’t agree more with the suggestion that all navigators learn (and practice!) the time-tested techniques of celestial navigation. You’ll find, if you really get into it, that there are lots of fun techniques that you can employ (sun-moon fixes, latitude lines (LAN or Polaris shots), running fixes if your position is close to the sun’s (or moon’s) declination, etc – the list is long. I had fun with these on the one passage I made (Port Townsend to Lahaina)in ’87 on John and Ann Bailey’s 43′ yawl – wonderful boat, but no electronics.
    In addition, understanding the theory of celestial navigation can only make you a better navigator overall.
    Good luck and have fun – happy navigating!

  13. Frank S

    What are best materials and methods available or recommended for self or group instruction on the basics ?

  14. Ron Barrett, USAF Ret. AFNOA Historian

    The Air Force Navigators Observers Association ( some years ago compile an 11,000 page pdf thumb drive comprehensive USAF Navigator’s History and gave copies to the AF Academy, CSO School at Pensacola and members. The AFNavigatorsComprehensiveHistory contains a high resolution copy of all the Navigator & Bombardier training manuals and schematics from 1939 Dr. Charles Lunn – PanAM Chief Navigator’s courses to close of AF Nav-training in 1977 at Mather AFB. Maxwell AFB AF/Historical Research Agency & Air University & NAS-Pensacola Naval Air Museum also have copies of this entire working history of navigation. It is an accurate history of all the navigation methodologies used by the AF. It is also the only complete compilation of the ACC/AF/USAF/AETC publications variously titled, Observer & USAF Navigator (magazines). AFNOA is a 35+year old nonprofit association of Navigators of “all” types, bombardiers & pilots. We recommend membership for those who want to hear from and know of the skills, missions and histories of actual navigators. AFNOA openly supports Navigator-authors like Bob Harder (The Three Musketeers of the Army Air Forces) and Jack Perrizo (From the Ravens Perch).

  15. Brisa

    I have been wanting to learn for a few years on my list of things to do this year. Just haven’t figured out if classroom or self study make more sense.

  16. Ralph Ahseln

    Come on ! Read the original story. Only “3 hours of instruction” .. And “Basic Theory”.
    I don’t think that makes one a User of the Sextant. There’s lots of things Taught for reasons that are more for Basic knowledge than because of, so called Threats and “Other (?)potential blackouts.”.. Geez

  17. Greg Cotten

    As an avid sailor and follower of sailors of old, I had no better satisfaction in teaching Celestial than when a Midshipman went and checked his position with GPS during a trans-atlantic sail on American Promise and he was within 1 nm. The expression on his face was priceless and instilled in him a true understanding and more so belief in the method. I think it was quite a bit more satisfying than completing the triple integral in calculus!

  18. Martin Perry

    I think this is another indication that our automated, press a button world is not as reliable as we think.
    It can’t hurt to learn skills like simple math without a calculator, how an engine works, even the quickly declining skill of writing without the input of a keyboard.
    It’s not a Luddite or grouchy old guy thing – it may be survival. Please pass the compass.
    ” When the last set of AA batteries die, civilization is over”

  19. Al Szymanski

    IMHO: Every cruiser should be able to take, at the very least, a Noon site. Simpler than most of the math required to really ‘do’ tides, and it could be a lifesaver.

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