Sea Stories

The Hollywood Sextant

Henry Cordova, QM2 USN

I don't know if the term is still in use, but we used to call it the "Hollywood Sextant". You know the drill: the skipper in the movie goes up to the rail of his tall ship, whips out his sextant and sights the sun, rattling off the latitude and longitude to his note-taking assistant right on the spot! No pesky sight reduction, no bulky tables, no Nautical Almanac. Well, I've got a Hollywood Sextant story for you...

It is always a pain when your ship gets selected as the flag. The Commodore and his staff come aboard and no one has any peace until they leave. Even the Captain has to move out of his cabin, and everyone down to the lowliest Seaman Deuce seems to get extra work. As for the QM division, we were stuck in the middle of it, the whole nine yards: dress whites on the bridge (except for the midwatch) and extra cleaning and painting; not to mention the additional strain of having a whole new crop of officers lurking about and constant fleet maneuvers to worry us. Well, we got even!

It all started when we had to paint the charthouse because of our new guests. While clearing out the loose gear, we found it. It was an aviation bubble sextant, no doubt a relic of World War II: a big ugly piece of machinery, neatly packed away in a large wooden box with cast iron corners, latches, hinges, and handles; web straps and screwed-on white-on-black tin plates proclaiming its Mark, Mod, and Serial Number. The instrument itself didn't even look like a sextant. It was a big rectangular cast aluminum thing, with all sorts of knobs and dials scattered over it and a big rubber-guarded eyepiece in the middle to look into and a glass window on the end to point out at the world. In the wood box were an assortment of mysterious-looking accessories, cables, plugs, filters and a big thing like a skate key; everything you needed to operate it except an instruction manual. It was painted haze gray (of course), and looked like something out of Herr Doktor Frankenstein's laboratory.

No one seemed to know where it came from. It must have been brought aboard when our ship was new, found to be totally useless, and stashed in the pub locker under the depth finder. Bubble sextants seem like a great idea for those days when you can see the sky clearly but the horizon is shrouded by haze, or if you want to shoot stars in the middle of the night when there is no horizon. Unfortunately, the artificial horizon doesn't work very well on an unstable platform like a ship. Besides, this device looked pretty intimidating. We were afraid to plug it in (yes, it was electrically operated!); however, there was a hole where the key fit, and you could wind it up like a clock. When you pushed a button it whirred and ground away, the key spinning slowly in its hole: a backup power source, no doubt. It was apparently designed to be mounted on some kind of carriage because it had no handles or other obvious way to hold it when in use. And it was big and heavy, the size of a shoe box and weighing in at about fifteen pounds.

This contraption was going to be the instrument of our revenge. My co-conspirator and I waited until we knew the Commodore, Captain, XO, and OOD were all going to be on the bridge; we then strolled through the entire bridge watch carrying the box between us, pretending it was even heavier than it was. The officers were in conference, and although they pretended not to notice us, their conversation stopped abruptly as we walked aft of the starboard radar repeater and out onto the bridge wing, directly behind the pelorus, where we could be clearly seen by everyone on the bridge. We then opened the box, and slowly and dramatically extracted THE DEVICE. You could have heard a pin drop.

So there we were, broad daylight and completely overcast, my fellow QM facing out to sea holding this preposterous contraption in his arms and me standing behind him with my notebook and pencil, ready to record the sight. Just then, the door swung open and our LPO, a recently-promoted QM1, walked casually onto the bridge. He took in the whole scene in an instant, and froze where he stood, looking like a deer caught in the headlights. He knew immediately what was happening, and I knew that he knew. Time seemed to stop; but my partner, not knowing what was going on behind his back, continued with our rehearsed script. He pressed the button, the wind-up key started grinding away and in a loud, clear voice he called out "Latitude ...", and proceeded to rattle off the exact position we had cribbed with a Loran fix just a few minutes earlier in the charthouse. I dutifully recorded the numbers in my notebook. After completing the sight, we carefully replaced the sextant in the box, closed and tightened all the latches and straps and walked back in the way we had come. The ship's officers and the Commodore's staff were standing at parade rest, looking dead ahead through the bridge windows, in complete silence. Our LPO, still frozen to the spot, was deathly white, and little beads of sweat were popping out on his forehead. The Bosun's Mate of the Watch, oblivious to the little drama which had just occurred, carefully entered the ship's position in the deck log.

This sea story ends thirty-five years after the events described above. By sheer luck, I ran into a clue on the Internet which allowed me to track down an old shipmate, my LPO from that fateful day so long ago and far away. I found the phone number where he was living on the other side of the continent, and I gave him a call, just to say hello. I greeted him warmly, not really expecting him to remember me since he must have supervised many QMs during his long career, while I had only one LPO to deal with in my short hitch. No sooner had I identified myself than he interrupted me, laughing out loud. "I remember you: you're the clown that brought that old bubble sextant on the bridge and took a phony fix right in front of all the brass!" It's satisfying to realize that one has made such a lasting impression on one's wartime comrades.

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