Carr: LORAN Overboard

USMMA Cadet using a sextant for celestial navigation
U.S. Navy Photo

By CW4 Michael Carr – I had heard enough. This constant debate on the need for electronics. Someone would say, “Well, celestial is great, but you really need electronics, I mean what if it’s raining, or too rough, or there is no horizon….?”

At first, I would respond to these queries with politeness and a feeling of duty to clear the air. “Yes, of course, there will be times when it is difficult” I would slowly respond, “But there are so many options with celestial. You have 57 different stars to shoot, you have the sun and moon and four planets.” 

Here we were sailing to Norfolk from Bermuda, shooting stars every day at morning and evening twilight, and the sun throughout the day, including my favorite, Local Apparent Noon (LAN), when you can obtain both latitude and longitude with a single line of position (LOP). This is done by timing your LAN shot and computing longitude using the shots Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). 

Computing a noon fix with a LAN shot is a thing of beauty, and always a sight to behold when plotted on your plotting sheet. An act deserving of a fresh cup of coffee and a brief respite from daily activity.

So, here we were, once again debating the need for electronics. Then came the words which threw me into action.

Someone said, “Look we have this LORAN onboard, it’s so simple and accurate, why would you go to all the effort to plot celestial fixes when you can just pull latitude and longitude off the LORAN?” 

“Well,” I said, “A lightning strike, a loss of electricity, a short circuit inside that magic box, there are a multitude of potential things which can cause us to lose the LORAN”

I was on a roll now, “But my Cassens and Plath sextant always works, it measures precisely to a 0.1 of a nautical mile, and it never fails me.” 

“That is why I shoot morning stars, evening stars, the sun, moon, and planets.” 

“I can walk onto any vessel, anywhere in the world, and if I have my sextant I can navigate the oceans.”

There was more bantering about the pros and cons of celestial and then my brain blew a circuit breaker. I still don’t know what exactly triggered me into action.

I stood up from my seat in the cockpit, walked down the companionway steps, over to the LORAN mounted above the chart table, and disconnected it’s power and antennae cables. I then unscrewed the unit from its mounts and carried it back up the companionway to the cockpit.

A gaggle of the crew was still there, idly engaged in scuttlebutt and debating the difficulty in taking moon shots.

“Listen Up” I interrupted.

“See this LORAN I am holding in my hand?”

“I wonder if it floats or sinks?”

There were quizzical looks, I could see they were confused by my question.

I then leaned back with the LORAN in my right hand and threw it astern as far and as high as I could. That silly electronic box made a large arc in the sky and then fell into our wake and floated away.

“I guess it floats,” I said, and then sat down and resumed drinking my coffee.

There was silence. Then more silence. Then some outcry. Really? Why did you do that? Some mild panic. What if thick fog settles in? What if it rains for the next 5 days?

“Well,” I finally said, “I am not in the least concerned or worried.” We can safely and effectively navigate our way to Norfolk, and we did. 

Sun lines, running fixes, morning stars, evening stars, moon shots, amplitudes, azimuths, planets, LAN, more running fixes. Computation of set and drift, estimated positions, and continuous DRs. Patience, consistently, thoughtful plotting, studious navigation. 

And then, on the day and at the time we calculated Chesapeake Light appeared on our horizon, broad off our starboard bow. Right there where it should be. “Imagine that,” I said aloud. Pure magic.

I stood in the cockpit, steering us along, all sails set, making 10 knots on a broad reach, steaming cup of coffee in my hand. And in my head I am thinking, “I wonder how that LORAN is doing now, floating across the ocean”. I smiled to myself.

“Let’s trim the foresail” I yelled to the crew, “She’s luffing at the peak”.

Drive on, keep her to it.