Sea Stories

Sextant for Submariners

Steve Ewing

Celestial navigation and sextant handling are one of those aspects of the rate, like magnetic compasses, with which submarine Quartermasters don't get a lot of experience. Here are my sextant tales.


On the USS Kamehameha (SSBN 642), we had a Navigator with a quirky sense of fun, and when we had to do a dead-stick berth shift in Holy Loch, Scotland, he decided to try some piloting by horizontal sextant angles. We were under control of the pilot and tugs at all times, of course, and so no one would be paying attention to our navigation anyway. It went off well; the only hitch was being unable to see all the navaids with the tugs alongside. After a few rounds, everyone had the hang of it and it was valuable training.

Training for what? There I was, QM1 on new-construction PCU Springfield (SSN 761), facing a dead-stick berth shift at Electric Boat without operable scopes. I knew what to do! It was a little more awkward, since our sextant operator was denied the luxury of the flying bridge (a little less room up there than on a boomer), and so had even less of a sight-line to the navaids. Even so, and considering that we put it together on short notice (good training for a casualty situation), it went off well and we got some BZs from the CO for initiative.

Celestial Navigation

I was always interested in the process of celestial nav (as evidenced by the page on this site), and, when QM Div LPO/ANAV on USS Ulysses S Grant (SSBN 631), I always worked some into our training. One summer off-crew, with ten training man-hours per week to kill, I outdid myself: a solid week of celestial navigation training, followed up the next week with a day at the beach that took up a good six hours.

We were, of course, limited in our mobility, so we let the sun do the moving. We shot a morning, noon, and evening sunline, and spent the rest of the time, uh, discussing navigation principles and conducting Rules of the Road drills. We then repaired to a shipmate's house for beer, calculation, and plotting, in that order. The fix was not too good: our sextant was a plastic lifeboat model, and we could only procure a year-old Nautical Almanac, but it was valuable practice nonetheless.

Cub Scouts

One last horizontal sextant session: a local scoutmaster phoned Group Two while I was staff QM, looking for someone to do some navigation training for his troop. I was happy to do so, and we met down at Avery Point in Groton, me armed with a sextant, chart, and three-arm protractor. I lectured on the navaids, buoys, and the practice of piloting, and then we all looked through the sextant and shot some angles. When plotted, sure enough, we were on Avery Point.

I was a little flustered by the realities of training seven-year-olds: Avery Point is close to the Groton-New London Airport, and every time a plane went by I had to stop and explain it was landing/taking off from the nearby runway. Except for the higher ones enroute to Providence. And yes, it's getting dark, so Race Rock lighthouse is flashing now... yes, so is Little Gull, and those buoys are flashing, too. That's a green buoy and that one is red, yes, I explained the difference before but here it is again... Quite the experience.

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