USS Bonhomme Richard sailors navigate by the stars

Celestial navigation is one of the earliest forms of sea-based positioning and relies on taking angles between the horizon and a reliable celestial body like the sun, moon, or certain planets and stars.

From their inception in 1798, Navy navigators and quartermasters were taught and used this method until the course was completely removed from the Navy’s course curriculum in 2006; however, amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard’s (LHD 6) navigation department has kept the teachings alive through on-the-job training.

Celestial navigation (CELNAV) was officially reinstated into the Navy’s navigation training in 2015.

The navy removed CELNAV inspection requirements for ships and eliminated CELNAV from questions on the quartermaster rating exams in the mid-1990s, said Master Chief Quartermaster James Fox, from Moyock, North Carolina, navigation department’s leading chief petty officer.

“The return of CELNAV has been a long time coming,” said Fox. “Our GPSs are extremely reliable, but we need to be prepared for any contingency. Imagine if our GPS was denied or spoofed; celestial navigation is a skill which could save our ship in that type of scenario.”

Fox has served in the Navy for more than 25 years, and is the only quartermaster aboard Bonhomme Richard to have learned CELNAV in a standard classroom setting.

“I joined the Navy back in 1990,” said Fox. “Upon graduating ‘A’ school in 1991, I was sent to my first ship. Back in those days we used primitive GPS to navigate the sea. The equipment we had gave us our location every 8-10 hours. Between those gaps of connectivity, we used celestial navigation and dead reckoning to estimate our position until we got the next update. Modern GPS updates [the ship’s] bearing every millisecond, so we know where we are at any given time. These advancements in technology are the reason celestial navigation was ultimately removed from the curriculum.”

The U.S. Naval Academy’s graduating class of 2017 will be the first group of sailors to graduate with a basic knowledge of CELNAV since its removal 11 years ago.

Although CELNAV was not taught to Bonhomme Richard’s quartermasters in a conventional classroom environment, Fox explained he has passed his knowledge down the ranks through formal instruction as well as hands-on training, “because it is an extra tool in their tool bag to keep the ship combat ready.”

The sextant, a tool which measures the angles between the horizon and celestial bodies, is an instrument sailors throughout history used for navigating before GPS was implemented in the Navy.

Even with the reliability of modern technology, it would be in a quartermaster’s best interest to learn all aspects of CELNAV in order to combat advancements in GPS denial technology, Fox said.

“CELNAV is a relevant and useful skill,” said Fox. “Despite all modern advances, the refocusing of these skills will allow our ship’s to become even more combat ready and prepared for contingencies we have not even thought of. The addition of CELNAV requirements will ensure this valuable skill will be relevant and available for future naval warfighters.”