Burton on the Bay:

What's a Sailor Without Stars?

What's a Sailor Without Stars?

Tell me the sextant is not going to

Davy Jones' Locker with the daily ration

of rum, all-male crews and the plank ...


"Joe, tell me it ain't so."

So the legendary though unidentified kid is reported to have appealed to the more legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson in the midst of the great Chicago White Sox scandal. How about the same question today, but directed to the U.S. Naval Academy?

Tell me it ain't so. Please assure me that the future officers of my beloved Navy will continue to study Celestial Navigation, taught at the academy since 1845. Come on, tell me the sextant is not going to join in the oblivion of Davy Jones' Locker the daily ration of rum, all-male crews and the plank errant sailors walked.

Sure, I can understand the latter three in these days of political and social correctness, but to give the sextant and the study of the stars the heave ho, well that's downright sacrilegious. Maybe I dare say downright stupid seeing that I left active duty 53 years ago, too far back to face a General Court Martial today.

But what other word is appropriate? Maybe some of the admirals - probably some captains too - need to do a bit of computer time, not just leave such high-tech chores up to yeomen and secretaries.

Then they'd learn first-hand how fickle a computer can be. The stars will always stay in one place; the sextant won't blow a chip.

And what ever happened to the theory that one's mind sharpens when learning things like algebra, geometry, calculus, and just plain math?

In addition, shouldn't one have a back-up? Not to mention that by learning the basics in the good old-fashioned way, one learns how and why computers and calculators come up with the answers.

Are we coming to a society where one can't add two and two without a calculator? Where a Navy navigator can't distinguish the North Star from an insignificant sparkle in the handle of the Big Dipper without a computer?

Hey, it gets scary. Especially when one realizes that even the best computers occasionally go down. Sure, go with computers and satellites as the main operation, but have a back-up - and have it in the brain and the capability of said brain to work old-fashioned devices such as a sextant.


Blacked Out without Back Ups

Much as my Mac is used today to churn out words, I didn't make my old Smith Corona manual typewriter walk the plank. It's still stowed away for an emergency and has been dusted off a few times over the past 20 years when the computer screen went blank. It's more than a security blanket; it has performed adequately when called upon in a crisis.

No one can read my handwriting other than me, and sometimes I can't. Newsmen are a notch below doctors in the bad handwriting department; something has to print their words for someone else to read them.

A typewriter is like a sextant, though it has many more moving parts. A key or two might stick, the space bar might not work, but in a pinch a manual typewriter can be relied on to perform. Though I admit it becomes increasingly difficult to locate a ribbon.

At about the time the Naval Academy made its big announcement, a commercial satellite failure wiped out performance by about 90 percent of pagers across the country and in some instances disrupted bank service and television transmitters. Didn't that make the top brass pause?

Apparently not. Hey, when I was in the Navy, our motto was something to the effect of that of the Boy Scouts: Be Prepared. Be prepared for anything unexpected.

When training for underwater demolition in the Seabees during World War II, we even had to do a bit of celestial learning. Not that we were expected to take the wheel of a vessel, but if for some reason in darkness we became disoriented on a shoreline mission, we could get our bearings from the stars.

Knowing east, west, north, south and points in between can come in handy - even in daytime on an overcast day. That's why an accurate electronic compass is mounted on the dash of my Subaru stationwagon.

Sure I know east from west, north from south, during normal daytime. But what am I supposed to do if there's no clue as to the position of the sun during a bad day or at night when there is no sun? Even in the jalopy, there have been numerous times when that compass has put me on the right track when either lost or temporarily disoriented whether in the city or the little back - and houseless - roads with no signs that meander through the endless marshes of Dorchester County.

The same in a strange city. Knowing my direction can help me set a course, at least keep me from going in circles - or square blocks. Sure beats stopping by the side of the road to look for moss on trees, or perhaps big, old brick buildings.


Get a Horse

So the Navy has decided that courses once held for Celestial Navigation will be replaced with extra lessons on computer navigation employing the military's man-made constellation of satellites.

There have been countless computer breakdowns or satellites that have gone awry.

So, you might respond, Celestial Navigation is useless when stars and planets are obscured by weather.

To which I respond in turn that chances are the weather will change quicker for the better than a satellite can be replaced or repaired. Perhaps quicker too, than a computer chip on a shipboard computer can get a backup.

What happens, I'm curious, when things get real snotty and the fleet is not on maneuvers but actively involved in the real thing, say with China, Iraq, or whatever hostile nation, and the system goes down. Is a cease fire declared as both sides scramble to get things up and running again?

By then, we're absolutely high tech, totally dependent on our satellites and our computers that read their signals. The personnel we had once trained to sail and position themselves by the stars are long retired. Worse still, those aboard the other fleet haven't given up Celestial Navigation either for practical reasons or because they haven't the advanced technology that we have. What an advantage.

Bring it home this way. It's 9am, and we've got to be in New York by 9pm tomorrow, absolutely have to be. We both have, in our garages, new Mercedes with computer powerplants dictated by computers. When we try to start our luxury cars, their computers are zonked out.

I go on horseback. Like the old mariner who kept his sextant, I kept my horse, which plods along, no computer, the only moving parts four legs. The nag can pause by the roadside for some grass or maybe a drink.

By the time roadside mechanics can diagnosis your car's problem, tow it to a garage, wait for the necessary parts to be flown in from Munich or elsewhere, then make the repairs, I'd be in New York. Before the deadline.

Far fetched? Admittedly, but sometimes primitive ways can be more reliable. Sure, go with technology, but have a sound backup system.

When needed, the stars and planets can put us in the right direction, which is more than can be said for my past "employer" in its decision to trash Celestial Navigation.

And whatever happened to tradition in a Navy that emphasizes, in all other aspects, that word? Enough said ...

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VolumeVI Number 22
June 4 - 10, 1998
New Bay Times

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