MarEx Mailbag:

This week’s mailbag is heavy. It contains numerous letters, all predictably referencing last week’s lead editorial entry.

In our second e-newsletter edition of the New Year (last week), our lead editorial focused on the U.S. Coast Guard’s notification of the termination of the LORAN-C signal. Couched appropriately inside a “SAFETY ALERT,” the news might evoke certain memories for older mariners and serve as a word of caution for newer professionals. In that piece, entitled, “Finding Our Way Home (Again)” we argued that as LORAN-C quickly approaches its planned obsolescence, we find ourselves left with a somewhat more limited menu of navigation choices. We posed the question as to whether we are collectively ready for the switch to be turned to the OFF position. I’m actually not convinced that we are. As always, our readers chimed in and had some interesting things to say. Read last week’s lead piece by clicking HERE. Or, just read on below to see what this week’s letter had to say.

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Hi Joseph,

Thank you very much for that brilliantly written article.

I wonder that one schools mariners to use all available options to confirm a GPS position routinely when the authority determinates the remaining options the mariners have.

From time to time, I teach ECDIS basics at a Maritime School here in Germany. I always underline the importance of having a GPS independent position. The question I quite often hear is, how should we manage that when the only available positioning system is GPS; say somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Consequently, the mariner is not allowed to trust GPS too much. Your friends at Schriever can manipulate the GPS signals with no notice. Unimaginable what happens if a ship hits a rock or coral reef caused by wrong GPS signals. Who will take the responsibility? I am pretty sure the Court will argue that the mariner should not trust GPS too much and that he has to use all available positioning options. But which options has he? The stars/sun – the sextant has no carriage requirement, other radio positioning systems – all determinate or not in operational condition (GALILEO/GLONASS).

In my opinion, the determination of LORAN-C is not only a system which is being switched off now, it is also the start of other problems mariners will have in the future.

Finally, we are looking forward to the positive effect ECDIS carriage requirement will have in the future. Hopefully, the positive aspects of using ECDIS are not be outvoted by problems of inaccurate positions.

Enjoy your weekend and best regards from the Baltic Coast


PS: I am working as the Head of Nautical Publications and Archive with
German Hydrographic Agency (BSH).

MarEx Editor’s Remarks: A letter from across the “pond.” I always appreciate hearing from our EU readers. Here’s another from a little closer to home:

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The Coast Guard's position on celestial navigation is summarized at

Significant portions of the United States position were drafted by a subject matter expert and rely heavily on a paper that was prepared by Captain Andy Chase of Maine Maritime Academy. Andy Chase, according to the individual who passed this along, proposed the original concept that eventually formed the U.S. position.

U.S. Coast Guard (name redacted)

MarEx Editor’s Remarks: I’m always glad to be given information from the Coast Guard – and, pass it along as necessary. Here’s another:

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Mr. Keefe,

Were you to pick a topic with which I would more than wholly agree with you, it could only be regarding the struggle against piracy.

During my first assignment as chief mate, the venerable WWII veteran and Master of the vessel I was on remarked that the magnetic compass was the number 1 navigation tool on a ship. Upon years of contemplation on this piece of philosophy, I concluded that he was, indeed, correct. The reliance on electronic steering and automatic navigation systems without frequent comparison to the magnetic compass is a fool-hardy practice, which has led to many marine casualties in the past ten years.

With regard to Loran-C, the Norwegians have decided to continue their chains, after much study and debate, and repeated scheduled closing dates. Undoubtedly, they have concluded that the GPS satellites, aging as they are, are too vulnerable to act as the only available nav system for the defense of their country, and I heartily agree with them. The cost of the Loran-C systems and their stations is certainly not in the order of the cost of one F-22 interceptor, and provides depth for military navigation, as well as commercial and recreational vessels.

My personal use of electronic aides dates back to instruction in the old WWII Loran A sets at NY Maritime, graduating to the use of a more modern Loran-A set on the USNS Patch in 1962. Further developments in combining Decca navigation combined with Loran C plus corrections for coastal port variations of the signals in the memory of the receiver proved very useful, and accurate. Satnav and, especially Omega (usually no better than dead reckoning), were stepping stones to better systems, but not mourned upon passing.

I acquired my Plath sextant in Germany that first year on my license, carrying it aboard every vessel I was assigned to until the middle 1990's, after which no one did, relying on the ship's sextant when need to practice occurred.

It is axiomatic that we now heavily depend upon our computers and GPS systems ashore, and at sea. But I remember well the lessons taught at an electronic aids course which I took at a venerable institution. The instructor, whom I was acquainted with from association when he was a port captain, taught extreme caution in relying entirely on radar information, for which, eventually, he was terminated by the school director. Yes, there is great ignorance among the highly placed, or shall we say that their greed for institutional continuation is more important than marine safety, in their minds.

As a GMDSS instructor, I acquired some knowledge in depth, to add to over 15 years and 27 professional courses at the school.

One of the systems being somewhat systematically removed is the radio direction finder. In 1981, our vessel, electronically challenged as it was, was approaching from the East to the Mississippi River Southwest Pass through heavy rainstorms, which affected radar use heavily. I quickly tuned up the RDF, which was a mechanical antenna adjusting variety, and acquired the SW Pass station, with an accurate bearing to steer by. I passed on to the master that I believed the weather front would pass and give us clear vision about five miles from the SW pass, based on radar returns. Sure enough, much to the Master’s great relief, the weather cleared as I had predicted, and we were exactly where we needed to be. The Golden-Haired Boy status was duly awarded me, and I have been a Sperry fan ever since. Lose your GPS in the Gulf passing along the oil rig-free (supposedly) channel, and you are now back to navigating by DR and rig counting; not good in bad weather.

The fighter pilots always have remarked that dual engine aircraft are their favorites, and surprisingly enough, the US Armed Forces seem to have adopted that as a standing order for fighter/bomber aircraft. I well remember the Air Force proposal of retiring the best ground attack support aircraft, the A-10 and the furor that raised, even on my alumni net. It's a never ending battle for clear, practical thinking.

Apparently, the present Administration simply cannot adapt to the acceptance of the wisdom of ancient mariners. I await the next casualty of such narrow thinking with dread.

Gary Tober, Captain, USNR ret., and Master Mariner, ret.

MarEx Editor’s Remarks: I liked that letter, of course. There’s nothing like a sea story or two and the experience behind those adventures to make a point. He did that nicely. Thanks for reading and writing. Read on for more:

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MarEx Editor’s Remarks: I never used LORAN A. I think it was gone, for the most part by the time I went to sea. Maybe I am not that old, after all. Here’s another:

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Hi, liked your editorial very much. I wonder if Kings Point or Annapolis are still teaching Celestial Nav nowadays. I’m a retired shipmaster and sailed continuously from July ’45 until retirement in April ’89. During my two years active duty in the Navy (’53 to ’56) as the Navigator on a Fleet oiler (USS NECHES, AO 47), as you said, Celestial Navigation was a religion. I was with American President Lines for 38 years (24 as Master) and although the Satellite system was placed aboard our ships around 1978, we were told to use it advisably and to not depend on it. We practiced Celestial Navigation religiously up until I retired in 1989. Of course, we compared positions always, but never depended on Satellites as one didn’t know when or if a circuit breaker or electronic circuit board on our on board receiver would go up in smoke. I can say we never in my 11 years or so of GPS usage ever had a GPS receiver failure. But I can’t imagine depending on just one system (GPS) nowadays and foregoing the use of Celestial Navigation.

Eugene A. Olsen

MarEx Editor’s Remarks: That’s someone with that depth and length of experience deserves to be listened to. Read on for another opinion:

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Thank you for this editorial. Too many times I get feedback from ship's captains and cadets that is diametrically different. Captains understand the importance of the celestial and others don't. There is a disconnect at times, though. Sea-going cadets out on their own on the ships many times will not be put to task for their sea projects that do have celestial as an important component. It's sometimes gun-decked and made up after getting off a ship. Ship's crews, with their increased pace of work, often do not feel an obligation to be part of the training of the green-horns coming up the gangway who literally may have only held a sextant up one time in class before checking out to go to sea.

Maybe that seagoing cadet model for training is outmoded and outdated. I know one Academic Dean at a maritime academy, with seagoing experience, who would like to see that model changed for his own cadets. He would like the school's floating training assets used differently, more like other maritime schools. One example of new thinking in ship board training comes from the Dutch company Splietoff. In conjunction with its government maritime authority it is taking cadet training to a new level. Current new-builds have incorporated a second "training bridge" directly above the main bridge. Twelve cadets sign on for their seagoing training under the tutelage of an instructor and learn their trade while actual operations are conducted just below.

When Loran-C is turned off the means of open ocean vessel positioning will be thin. There are a number of other anomalies other than the "military switch" that can make D-GPS suspect at times. How well these are understood by the licensed officer on the bridge is important. I know my celestial navigation instructor was quite pleased to startle dozing cadets by dropping a copy of H.O. 229 to the floor stating, "Can't do this to a Loran receiver can you?" I know if I ever ran off to sea again, my Tamaya in its red wood case would be my carry-on. Well, maybe not if I claimed I shoot stars with it...

Scott O'Connor
St. Johns Bar Pilots Assn.
Jacksonville, FL

MarEx Editor’s Remarks: I had a lot of thoughts while reading this letter. The part about the Tamaya in the red wood case stands out the most. When I bought mine in 1982, Tamaya was making the switch from wood to plastic boxes. Of course, the most important thing to me was how cool I would look coming up the gangway with that wooden box. In any event, they showed me several choices and I made my selection (I didn’t have the extra $300 for the high-end Plath), after which they presented me with the sextant in a gray plastic box. I immediately balked and asked for the wooden box, of which they had a few left. They patiently explained that the boxes and the sextants had matching serial numbers and that if I mismatched a box to a sextant, I might have trouble getting into the country with U.S. Customs. I put my foot down and insisted. They wanted the sale and the rest is history. In the end, and as a primarily Jones Act trades mariner, I have never had to take it through Customs. It’s funny the things you remember. Thanks for writing, Scott. Here’s still another letter:

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I enjoyed your article about the cancellation of the Loran C system. Brought back a lot of memories as a young pup trying to obtain fixes on transpacific voyages. My first home away from home was on the USNS Vandenberg while she was docked at the Naval Supply Center in Oakland, CA in May of 1978. I was a newly licensed Third Mate from Texas Maritime Academy, eager to put my new license to use. I was the first Texas A&M grad hired by MSCPAC. Most graduates went with the oil companies or the unions. I did not want to see the world from the back of an oil refinery and didn't want to be sitting in a union hall unemployed half my life, so I joined MSC.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when no one ever heard of Texas Maritime Academy when I showed up for work in Oakland. My first ship assignment was the USNS Pvt. Leonard C. Brostrom TAK 255, built in 1943. I was allowed to live on the Vandenberg until the Bronstrom was brought out of mothballs and crewed up in Oakland. It was much safer that staying at a hotel in Jack London square in Oakland at the time.

Best Regards

Robert K. Baker

MarEx Editor’s Remarks: MSC did a lot of that sort of thing back in those days. I joined MSCLANT in Bayonne, NJ in the summer of 1980. They assigned me to the Vandy, but while they got me squared away with paperwork, I was put up on the USNS Harkness, which was one of those smaller white fleet boats. They called them survey vessels, but I’m not sure what they really did. In any event, the boat was in layup, crawling with roaches and the office guy says to me, “Oh, and by the way, go on up to the bridge and start correcting the charts.” There must have been two full boxes of (untouched) Notice to Mariners up there. Mercifully, they got out of there in less than a week. Mr. Baker has written before and is a regular reader. Thanks for weighing in, Robert. And, just one more letter. You’ll recognize the author:

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MarEx Editor’s Remarks: Captain Brown is a regular MarEx reader and he writes in from time to time. He is, of course, President of the IOMM&P. Thanks for reading and writing. On the subject of LORAN C, my brother-in-law – also an experienced sailboat owner – told me this week that he hasn’t seen a LORAN unit for sale in any of the marine stores that he frequents for almost a decade.

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