Practical Navigators

Practical Navigators - Electronics - June 2002
Electronics June 2002
By Ben Ellison

Practical Navigators
Olde Salem, Massachusetts, meets the paper(chart)less future.

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The Navigator of the United States Navy does not mess around. Addressing a bow-tie-speckled crowd of New England yachtsmen and nautical history buffs, Rear Admiral Richard West passionately describes the "technological explosion" that is blowing apart the grand traditions of marine navigation and affirms his commitment to an all-digital future. When asked the inevitable question about paper charts, he grins mischievously and says, "We're going to throw them all overboard!"

This is radical talk, particularly given the context of the Admiral's presentation. The occasion was the 227th birthday party for Nathaniel Bowditch, arguably our nation's greatest navigator, and was held in his ultra-historic hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. The party kicked off the Bowditch Bicentennial, a yearlong celebration of the man and his signature work, The American Practical Navigator, first published in 1802. (See for more information.) The book, usually just called Bowditch and continuously updated through more than 75 editions, is considered the ultimate authority on matters of navigation aboard most ships and many yachts.

Nathaniel Bowditch was truly remarkable. By the time he went to sea at the age of 21, he had taught himself advanced mathematics and astronomy, along with at least a dozen languages needed to satisfy his voracious intellectual appetite. He already understood the era's intensely complex methods of navigation, and on his first voyage he was finding mistakes in the standard British tables. By 1802 he had developed a "simplified" technique for taking "lunar distances," then the best system for determining longitude before accurate chronometers were affordable aboard merchant vessels. Even simplified lunars make regular celestial navigation look like first-grade arithmetic. Nonetheless, Bowditch vowed to "put down in the book nothing I can't teach the crew," and supposedly every member of that crew, including his cook, could take a lunar observation and plot the ship's position.

In an age when lives and cargos were commonly lost due to navigation errors, Bowditch's genius and ability to express himself had a significant impact on the safety of sailors and the economic development of our nation. The value of his work did not go unnoticed, and the first U.S. Naval Hydrographic Office purchased the copyright to The American Practical Navigator in 1868. That organization, now called the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), continues to update its text and will debut the 2002 edition at the Salem Maritime Festival in July. The latest Bowditch will encompass about 1,000 pages and include a CD-ROM; no doubt, it will thoroughly cover the science of marine navigation, with emphasis on traditional techniques and tools to practice them.

In fact, Bowditch is virtually required equipment aboard all U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels, and West is intimately familiar with its pages from his many years as a navigator and captain aboard surface ships. In part, that's why so many traditional sailors are a bit startled by his enthusiasm for the most modern of tools. And I'm not just referring to the history buffs gathered in Salem; apparently a common reaction to West around the fleets is, "Go to sea without paper charts? Are you crazy?" Mind you that despite rumors to the contrary, celestial navigation is still actively practiced in the Navy, and lunars weren't actually dropped until the early 1900s. A cautious, traditional approach to new navigation technologies has always served well.

Of course, West is not crazy. His position as Navigator of the Navy is a serious mandate, not an honorary title; it was created just a couple of years ago when the service realized that many of its parts were independently developing electronic charting systems and sought an overseer. West was already, and remains, Oceanographer of the Navy, responsible for nearly 4,000 personnel who collect and disseminate massive amounts of cartographic, meteorological, and other data. His understanding of geospatial information and services (GIS) made him an obvious choice to lead the transition to digital navigation.

Next page > Practical Navigators continued > Page 1, 2, 3

This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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