UK’s offshore patrol vessel finds Pacific island to be in wrong place for 85 years

Crew members on Royal Navy River-class offshore patrol vessel (OPV) HMS Spey have proved a remote Pacific island has been in the ‘wrong place’ for 85 years, according to the navy officials.

Henderson Island in the South Pacific is one mile south of the position marked on charts used by mariners the world over since 1937. Uninhabited and about the size of Oxford, the island is one of four islands in the remote Pitcairn chain.

Credit: Royal Navy

Patrol ship HMS Spey confirmed the error as part of efforts to check and update charts of waters around British Overseas Territories scattered around the globe.

The Royal Navy has been using navigational charts supplied by the UK Hydrographic Office for more than 225 years.

Over the past 15 years, the majority of the fleet has used digital charts. Key areas and seas regularly used are well covered by the electronic system which not only ensures pinpoint navigational accuracy but allows sailors to ‘interrogate’ key features such as landmarks, buoys and depths, as well as turning specific features on/off as required.

The Pitcairn chain has only had some satellite-based data collection, which had already highlighted the inaccurate positioning on historical charts, so HMS Spey offered to assist with data gathering.

As explained, the navigator Lieutenant Michael Royle used radar imagery gathered by HMS Spey’s sensors and GPS positioning, overlaying the details on the existing charts of the Pitcairn chain.

“In theory, the image returned by the radar should sit exactly over the charted feature – in this case, Henderson Island,” Lieutenant Royle explained.

“I found that wasn’t the case – the radar overlay was a mile away from the island, which means that the island was plotted in the incorrect position when the chart was first produced. The notes on the chart say that it was produced in 1937 from aerial photography, which implies that the aircraft which took the photos was slightly off in its navigational calculations.”

Credit: Royal Navy

The work by HMS Spey is part of a much wider government program to update maritime charts of waters around the UK’s Overseas Territories and improve navigation using sonar, airborne laser techniques and satellites.

To remind, HMS Spey was delivered to Portsmouth Naval Base in October from BAE Systems’ shipyards on the Clyde for the final stages of construction before Spey’s crew took custody of it on 7 January 2021.

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Photo: Royal Navy