Carr: Follow Canopus, Not Your Compass

compass
File Photo

By Michael Carr – Following their compasses was not working. They had been hiking through mangroves for over an hour and had made little progress towards their destination. They were feeling pressure and frustration. There was a deadline.

“This is Blackbeard Actual, stop and huddle on me,” said the LT through his helmet mic. His 12-man team, all wearing night-vision goggles, stopped their advance and slowly converged on the team leader.

It was 0200 in the morning. They were loaded with combat gear, and needed to cover 5 miles through this nasty, wet, root-infested mangrove before twilight and sunrise, which were only a few hours away. Their destination was a mock village, hidden in the recesses of this endless swamp. In this mock village was a HVA, a high value target, which they needed to capture or kill.

Instructors were watching, monitoring and evaluating their every move. Every decision and action was being noted and graded. This was not a feel good exercise. It was a serious, you better have your “shit together” exercise. Your head in the game, “don’t fuck this up” exercise. They had been training for weeks; there was no reason they could not succeed, but this immense swamp was killing them, so to speak.

“We are not making forward progress, we need to come up with a new plan,” said the LT to his group. “Anyone have ideas?”

An hour or so earlier they had been dropped off by Riverine Warfare Craft on a riverbank, and proceeded inland. They needed to move due south, 180 T, for 5 miles to the mock village. Their plan was to infiltrate the village prior to sunrise, grab the HVA, and exfiltration to a pickup point where the Riverine Warfare Boats would meet them.

Their unanticipated problem was they could not move in a straight line, due south, following their compasses because the mangrove swamp had too many obstacles. Roots, fallen trees, deep holes, mud, vegetation and debris. They kept veering left and right, and then back again, trying to move around and through the obstacles. All the while also checking their compasses attempting to keep moving south.

They all soon realized they were just going back and forth and around without moving forward. We need to move forward, and we are running out of time. Trying to move and maintain a compass course was not working.

It was a clear night, not a cloud in the sky. It was March and high in the sky to the north you could see the Big Dipper constellation, Ursa Major. If you follow the curve of Ursa Major’s handle it leads to Polaris, the North Star. Polaris sits over the North Pole, and indicates true north. In the days of slavery in the United States, slaves fleeing the South would follow the North Star to freedom.

Looking south, you see the constellation Orion, square in shape and containing four bright corners and a three star belt through the middle. Below Orion in the sky, sits the star Canopus. Canopus is the second brightest star in the southern sky, and it bears due south. Head towards Canopus and you will end up in Antarctica.

After a few minutes of bantering around ideas, none of which seemed plausible, and with time running out, a team member offered a thought:

“Look, at the sky,” he said to everyone, “We can see Canopus, it’s showing us due south where we need to go.”

“Ok”, his teammates responded “Go on.”

“Well, instead of using our compasses, and having to stop every five minutes to orient ourselves, and by stopping we lose precious time, let’s just focus on Canopus. We can weave in and out, through all these obstacles, but we won’t have to stop.”

He continued: “We just keep glancing up to Canopus, referencing its position to our movement, we can deviate left and right, but we can keep coming back to its location for our direction.”

They all looked up, and quickly realized this might work. It had to work because they were out of options.

“OK, you take point,” the team leader said. “Show us how this is done.”

So he moved to the front, flipped down his night vision goggles and started moving. Through one eye he looked at Canopus, and through the other he looked at the terrain. It was tiring. Move left, move right, come back to the center. Like a sailboat tacking upwind, he and the team moved through the swamp.

He thought back to his sailing days, and the term VMG. Velocity Made Good, the speed which you make towards your destination, while tacking back and forth into a headwind. There was no headwind now, just obstacles. It’s all about vectors, he mused. Keep that true motion vector large and headed to the south.

It took a few minutes to get into a rhythm, but soon they were moving as a team, no need to stop and re-orient themselves. Just follow Canopus, forget the compass.

He muttered to himself, “We don’t need no damn compass, fuck the compass! We have celestial bodies!”

They were making progress and soon realized they would make it to the mock village in darkness.

They paused a few times to pee and hydrate but essentially kept moving for the next 3 hours. Moving towards Canopus. And then dim lights appeared through the mangroves. The village was dead ahead.

“Halt, and assemble on me,” the team leader spoke through his mike. They had arrived. Phase one complete. On time, on target.

“Ok, we are here, village is a ¼ mile dead ahead, lets set up our insertion plan,” said the team leader. “Thanks for getting us here Chief,” spoke the LT.

“No problem, sir, Easy Day.” He said.

“Hah”, he said to himself, “Compasses are fine, GPS is nice, but if you want to be a navigator, know the stars.” He took a long sip of water from his hydration pack and made ready to insert into the village.