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Home > Crew Matters > Bring out the sextant

Bring out the sextant

For millennia, travellers used the stars to guide them on their journeys. It was through the art of celestial navigation that Odysseus sailed the seas and Columbus reached the Americas. Even Lawrence of Arabia used the stars to navigate his way across the vast, featureless deserts of the Middle East.

Before the development of GPS, knowledge of celestial navigation was long considered one of the most important educational requirements for mariners. As technology develops there is naturally more reliance on computers and global positioning systems.

Yet, over the last couple of years, it has been reported about the resurgence in interest in celestial navigation, within the Navy of both the United States and the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom. These are heavily funded organisations developing, and provided with, the most cutting-edge technologies yet they are returning to the very roots of navigation, dusting off their sextants and once again learning how to navigate using the sun, moon and stars.

The reports have maintained the renewed interest in the subject is purely to take us back to our roots though, reading between the lines, the worry about potential hacking of computer navigation systems is evident. The term ‘cyber vulnerability’ was coined.

At our RYA training centre in Palma, we are often engaged in light-hearted arguments about chart work vs electronics. At least once a week a trainer will gently remind a student that, upon powering up an electronic chart plotter they will read a disclaimer, at this point it’s usual that the rest of the class will sing along with “secondary aid to navigation” and variations of the same. Satellites can change position, be switched off or drop out of service yet passing the charted lighthouse on a bearing of 180º will never let you down.

The highest level of Yachtmaster within the RYA scheme is Yachtmaster Ocean, and is the certificate required for category 0 waters, ‘unrestricted’ on red ensign flagged vessels. It’s the next step up from Yachtmaster Offshore and, in many cases, finalises the RYA training section of a mariner’s career.

The shorebased training can be taken at any time yet the candidate must have completed a qualifying passage within the last ten years before arranging to meet with an independent examiner and hold either RYA/MCA Yachtmaster Offshore Certificate of Competence, or Officer of the Watch (Yachts 3000gt) issued by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

Official text from the RYA website is below:

The candidate was fully involved in the planning of the passage, including selection of the route, the navigational plan, checking the material condition of the vessel and her equipment, storing with spare gear, water and victuals and organising the watch-keeping routine.

During the passage a minimum non-stop distance of 600 miles must have been run by the log, the yacht must have been at sea continuously for at least 96 hours and the yacht must have been more than 50 miles from land or charted objects capable of being used for navigation/position fixing while sailing a distance of at least 200 miles.

To be eligible as an ocean qualifying passage the distance between departure and arrival points by the shortest navigable route must be more than 600 miles.

At Aigua Sea School we run our Ocean courses over six days: the shorebased element runs for five days then we include a bonus training day of practical sextant training, or ‘day in the bay’ as we fondly refer to it. It occurred to me, way back in 2012 when we introduced the idea of the sixth day, that practical training is essential for the classroom room study to really ‘click’. The practical day will run on the day of best visibility and it’s a pleasure to welcome the ocean crew back to the school and see their triumphant smiles as they’ve worked out their position … you know this stuff really works!

Achieving the Yachtmaster Ocean Certificate of Competence is a big deal and a valuable addition to your CV; it’s also humbling that we are engaging the very skills of traditional mariners centuries old and we hold the skill to navigate ourselves across this beautiful planet.

For more information contact The Aigua Sea School team by email training@aiguaseaschool.com or call +34 871 230 373