Sextant May Be Dying a Slow Death, but Officers Still Need to Keep Their Eyes Peeled

Cape Times (South Africa), June 17, 2009 | Go to article overview

Sextant May Be Dying a Slow Death, but Officers Still Need to Keep Their Eyes Peeled


"These," said a seasoned containership master, directing a new officer's attention to the ship's bridge windows, "are the best navigational aids and must be used."

Loaded with meaning, that paraphrased anecdote comes from a recent letter to the London-based shipping daily, Lloyd's List, as the writer underlined the essential role of the human being in navigation, despite the march of technology.

A former British India officer and reader of this column sent me thoughts (headed "A Worrying View of Navigation") from a number of mariners serving on a variety of ships with a range of electronic aids that have largely replaced many traditional methods of navigation.

Some are calling for astronavigation to be dropped from training curricula, lauding the advantages of the global positioning system (GPS), electronic chart displays and other hi-tech equipment. As few officers use them, sextants are now cupboard-bound.

A port state surveyor arrived on the bridge of a smart bulker a few years ago and asked for the ship's sextant. "Not got one," came the nonchalant reply from the master, "we use GPS here." Although that ship was held up until one had been acquired, sextants - the very icon of the navigator's craft - have since become non-mandatory.

Noon sun-sights assumed part of shipboard tradition, a ceremony that some masters treated very seriously, and it was imprudent for a junior officer's latitude calculation based on his sextant reading to be closer to the mark than that of his boss.

That remarkable and respected figure in the local shipping world, the late Captain Paul Buchholtz, told me of his wartime experiences. Apart from being torpedoed twice and bombed twice while still a teenager, Buchholtz had two other close calls in World War II.

One involved a torpedo passing beneath his lightly laden ship in the Caribbean and the other occurred when he was a junior officer aboard a cargo-passenger ship that was ferrying troops and equipment from South Africa to India.

The master insisted that all navi-gating officers, dressed in their number ones, appear on the bridge wing for the daily noon sun-sight. A cadet was posted as a look-out on the opposite bridge wing, "lest a submarine take advantage of our daily sun-sight", the master had said, words that were prophetic.

The daily ceremonial practice was interrupted by a cry from the cadet who had indeed sighted a submarine. There she was with her hatch open and her gun crew rushing to train the gun on Buchholtz's vessel. The master ordered the helm hard to port to reduce the ship's profile to the submarine's line of fire, and to enable her stern gun - the merchant ship's only armament - to have a decent shot.

"The sub's gun must have jammed," Buchholtz recalled, "as they seemed to be struggling with it, and when our gunners opened fire, she dived without firing. …

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Sextant May Be Dying a Slow Death, but Officers Still Need to Keep Their Eyes Peeled
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