back to article Ancient with a dash of modern: We joined the Royal Navy to find there's little new in naval navigation

The art of not driving your warship into the coast or the seabed is a curious blend of the ancient and the very modern, as The Reg discovered while observing the Royal Navy's Fleet Navigating Officers' (FNO) course. Held aboard HMS Severn, "sea week" of the FNO course involves taking students fresh from classroom training and …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I work for a GPS receiver company & it's strangely comforting that there are still people trained in how to manage without it.

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Listening to friends and neighbors... some wouldn't have a clue how to go from point "A" to point "B" here in town without their GPS.

      As you said, "it's strangely comforting that there are still people trained in how to manage without it."

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        "Listening to friends and neighbors... some wouldn't have a clue how to go from point "A" to point "B" here in town without their GPS."

        I remember when my brother-in-law first bought a GPS unit. It was the days before they included maps, at least on "within reach of an interested consumer" devices. I suspect few people would find much use for a GPS receiver that did little other than show the current GPS coordinates. I suspect that's why what left-pondians call a GPS, we right-pondians call a SatNav. Two very different beasts with orders of magnitude between their usability levels.

  2. Mike 137 Silver badge

    "It's probably 20 times as much planning to execution."

    Sounds like good engineering practice. The biggest mistake we make in modern systems development and deployment is to go straight from concept to implementation, omitting the planning.

    There's an old Russian proverb - "measure seven times, cut once".

    1. AMBxx Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: "It's probably 20 times as much planning to execution."

      Imagine if we had a more 'agile' Navy!!

      1. Joe W Silver badge

        Re: "It's probably 20 times as much planning to execution."

        "Now I've cut off twice, and it is still too short"

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: "It's probably 20 times as much planning to execution."

          Torpedo on the starb'd bow captain.

          Quick send out the "form a sub-committee to study the problem" email

          To hands to the Powerpoint

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: "It's probably 20 times as much planning to execution."

        We have had; HMS Nottingham ran aground in 2002 on a well known and charted rock because people weren't doing more execution than planning and hadn't done things such as marking the charts properly for navigation obstacles, according to the court martial summary which was FOI'd.

        This shows that particular issue has been well and truly plugged by both technology replacing paper charts and showing hazards to the ship, and via training.

        1. UCAP Silver badge

          Re: "It's probably 20 times as much planning to execution."

          However RN ships always have a full set of old-fashioned paper charts on board that are kept up to date with the latest navigation issues. Technology *can* go wrong, and when it does you want to revert back to tried-and-trusted methods of navigation used for centuries.

          1. ICL1900-G3 Bronze badge

            Re: "It's probably 20 times as much planning to execution."

            And it's the same in the air. It is a legal requirement to have a current chart - and hopefully you can remember how to use it.

  3. AMBxx Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Thank you

    Thank you, The Register. I've really enjoyed these articles.

    1. Joe W Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: Thank you

      So have I! And I hope there will be another series - the specialist course sounds cool :)

    2. UCAP Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: Thank you

      I known a fair number of RN officers due to the work that I am currently doing, and one thing I've always noticed is the unassuming way they go about tasks that, when you think about it, are actually incredibly difficult to get right. Its a factor of the depth of training that RN officers go through in order to qualify for their roles; another example is the "Perisher" sub commander course that is renowned for being total evil but produces sub commanders who absolutely know their stuff (the USN apparently copied the course but could find no way of improving it or making it tougher).

      The RN collectively also keeps the "old ways" alive; not because they are inherently conservative, but because they are very aware that if a crisis occurs all of the complex technology that we surround ourselves with may simply stop working. Bearing taken by hand and using a sextant will still allow you to work out where you are, even if GPS has fallen completely silent!

      Raising my glass to the Senior Service out of respect.

      1. Muscleguy Silver badge

        Re: Thank you

        Same reason why blood bags are still written by hand, in big letters. When a natural disaster hits the power to the tech can easily die and you may find yourself operating (literally) by lantern light. So you need to be sure you are giving the patient the right blood type.

    3. Korev Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: Thank you

      Yes, I agree.

      A glass of Severn Up for the author -->

      1. Tom 7 Silver badge

        Re: Thank you

        A glass of Korev shirley. One of the few lagers I'll drink.

    4. Youngone Silver badge

      Re: Thank you

      I've enjoyed them too, but this has a huge security risk in that there are pictures of St. Peter's Port, and if the French figure out where it is, they might take it back!

      It's a good thing we still have Calais.

  4. Ivan Headache

    Thank you

    Interesting to see the RAF boat in the picture.

    My dad was in the the RAF during the war - on boats.

    1. Korev Silver badge

      Re: Thank you

      Does the RAF still have any boats?

      1. Spanners Silver badge
        Pint

        Re: Thank you

        A friend used to work in them at RAF Allness (Formerly RN Invergordon of mutiny fame).

        I think that's closed now.

      2. IWVC

        Re: Thank you

        I think that technically they have 4, all in museums. 1 at RAF Museum Cosford under restoration so not on display, and 3 at RAF Museum Hendon where one is undercover and 2 outside gradually crumbling away due to lack of care. The boats were retired into civilian hands for target towing purposes in 1986 and sea rescue taken over completely by helicopters.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Thank you

      The article said it was "RAF livery". Does that mean it was a civilian replica with a matching set of colours and markings? There are usually laws about how close something can get to official markings.

      1. Ivan Headache

        Re: Thank you

        Found this

        http://www.bmpt.org.uk/pdfs/HSL102-InfoSheet.pdf

  5. Spanners Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Family Story

    Coming from Orkney, I have been aware of its tide races, skerries and other navigational hazards for many decades.

    A story I heard from an elderly relative was how not every RN vessel believed in all those items. Between the mainland of Orkney and the island of Rousay, there is a narrowing channel (I think it has an island in the middle). The effect of this narrowing is a standing wave every time the tide changes. I understand it is generally over 1m high but can be well over 2.

    There was a RN vessel at Kirkwall on the north of the island but it needed to get back to Scapa Flow in a hurry and someone decided to ignore the markings on the chart identifying this as a bad idea! The story was that this, not very big, vessel had plenty of depth below when it hit the wave (is there a word for them?) and came to a complete halt. It apparently limped back to Kirkwall and was towed the long way to the (now long gone) naval base in Scapa Flow.

    The story did not include what happened to the captain & navigator!

  6. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
    Thumb Up

    Suggested podcast

    El Reg did a great article on a trip on HMS Enterprise a few years ago. Which was very good, as was this one. I approve of boatnotes.

    Anyway in the comments was a plug for a podcast called Omega Tau. Which is a very geeky science, engineering and aviation podcast. So I thought I'd take this opportunity to plug that in general.

    But also there's a specific episode where he went on HMS Enterprise for a week. And the podcast is something stupid like 3-4 hours long. Made up of several different bits. Including about an hour of interviews with the navigator, on how they navigate. And the amount of planning he had to do for a port visit - where the Navy will take on local pilots but they aren't allowed to drive the ship, only to advise. The navigator said that Navy rules didn't allow him to use GPS while docking, so that he would always be current with his skills if he had to operate in a GPS-denied environment.

    So I'd recommend that. And in fact all his podcasts, not that I listen to the ones in German, but I'm sure they're also great.

    In one section he interviews the navigator at night. while he's on watch on the bridge. An alarm goes off. Don't worry, that's the auto alarm on the radar to tell me about a ship I'd already noticed. Then the navigator asks one of the lookouts to disable the alarm. "It's on the console on the starboard side. No! Your other starboard!" I reckon they use left and right like the rest of us, if nobody's watching...

    1. gazthejourno (Written by Reg staff)

      Re: Suggested podcast

      Funny you mention Omega Tau, I think I was aboard Enterprise within a couple of months of his visit. At the time Severn's current captain was CO of Enterprise.

    2. Muscleguy Silver badge

      Re: Suggested podcast

      The person he’s talking to might be cross lateral like my daughter. She has no innate sense of left or right, is not handed in any way. She writes right handed simply because she was taught to.

      Sample driving conversation from recently, she is navigating: not that left, the other left!

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Suggested podcast

        Then not wishing to be ablist but perhaps steering a warship may not be the job for her.

        Perhaps she should consider cyber

        1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
          Happy

          Re: Suggested podcast

          Left hand down a bit.

          Everybody duck!

          Oh dear. What has Leslie done? Terribly sorry…

          1. jtaylor Bronze badge

            Re: Suggested podcast

            "Left hand down a bit."

            As I read this article, I kept waiting for a student to confide that in extremis they just wait for the Isle of Wight ferry and follow it back to port.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Suggested podcast

              Like the person who drove their car into their drive - followed by several unrelated cars who had been following them in the fog.

    3. The Bobster

      Re: Suggested podcast

      Omega Tau 318 – (My Flight with) The USAF Thunderbirds is especially worth a listen as well.

    4. hoola Silver badge

      Re: Suggested podcast

      I agree, they are very well written and give an excellent flavour of what the reality is.

      Too much nowadays is bite sized chunks of inaccurate summary.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Rate this article"

    Remember those happy days?

    Anyway, ten doesn't really seem adequate.

    Thank you.

  8. Ken G
    Pint

    Applications of IT

    I've read quite a few articles on the Register now about how the English Navy uses IT on its boats.

    There are other applications of IT which might be worth investigating. Consider the complexity of a modern brewery or even a pub. There are some in Ireland which use online ordering and drone delivery of pints. There are probably navigational challenges there too, as well as meteorological.

    Widen your horizons.

    1. Spanners Silver badge
      Flame

      Re: Applications of IT

      I've read quite a few articles on the Register now about how the English Navy uses IT on its boats.

      The last time there was an English navy, there was no such thing as IT. It became the British navy - perhaps not long after the Act of Union in 1707.

      1. Wellyboot Silver badge
        Headmaster

        Re: Applications of IT

        It's been the Royal Navy since Henry-VIII created it, property of the crown.

        It could be argued that the English (or British since 1707) technically don't have a navy they just provide one for the Sovereign.

      2. Ken G
        Trollface

        Re: Applications of IT

        I didn't mean to offend through wrong nomenclature, I meant to offend by suggesting the Register is overly focused on military watercraft.

  9. Antron Argaiv Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    USNA Annapolis

    Several years ago, they made a big deal about no longer teaching sextant use, now that we have modern satellite navigation and computers, no need for that silly old stuff.

    It was quietly brought back and is again being taught. Forewarned is forearmed, or something like that.

    "Be Prepared" isn't just for the Scouts.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: USNA Annapolis

      Seems unnecessary, even if GPS was down the US Navy has alternatives GLONASS and BAIDU

      1. HarryBl

        Re: USNA Annapolis

        Not if your GPS receiver has been wrecked.

      2. Ken G
        Mushroom

        Re: USNA Annapolis

        I agree they should be able to target Washington using those (even if they thing their aiming east).

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: USNA Annapolis

      UK school maths teaching these days seems to cover many theories that differ from 60 years ago. Does anyone still learn the application of trigonometry on a curved surface? Used for long distance navigation over the Earth's surface.

    3. HarryBl

      Re: USNA Annapolis

      Another thing that was quietly brought back by the USN was morse code. You can knock a satellite out of the sky but you can't stop an HF transmission in morse.

  10. John Jennings Silver badge

    The RYA Yachtmaster (Ocean) still includes sextant use

    I think that the coastal yachtmaster just needs 'awareness off' - while the ocean requires use and care of a sextant.

    It is trickey, but doable, if you have the tables and a list of the steps to hand.

    The beauty of the sextant navigation, along with Line, and compass chart and a 2B pencil is that they will get you anywhere

    I liked the image of the Portland speed gauge- it brought me back. We teach how to use that with the Sea Cadets still.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: The RYA Yachtmaster (Ocean) still includes sextant use

      >The beauty of the sextant navigation, along with Line, and compass chart and a 2B pencil is that they will get you anywhere

      It does help to know the time in Greenwich - but you can get that from the GPS

      1. Korev Silver badge

        Re: The RYA Yachtmaster (Ocean) still includes sextant use

        Oh don't be mean about Greenwich time...

    2. AdrianMontagu

      Re: The RYA Yachtmaster (Ocean) still includes sextant use

      Dead Reckoning and sextants work when a missile has gone through the ship's power supply.

      IT WORKS. "IT" won't work when that happens.

      GPS systems are the first thing to be attacked in a warfare situation.

  11. Borg.King

    Thank you Gareth

    for these extremely interesting and informative posts.

    Also Thank You to the members of the RN and the RFA, and all the services, for their dedication and commitment to our safety and freedom.

  12. HildyJ Silver badge

    Question?

    I assume from your article that the LDL is based on chart soundings.

    For enemy held (active sonar not an option) areas with shifting shoals do they have a backup? Some kind of high tech sounding line? Or do they just shift the LDL further out?

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Question?

      You probably don’t go there. Or if you do, it isn’t covertly, so you can use active sonar. Because you’re there to do amphibious stuff and/or mine clearance. Just blowing stuff up would be done from over the horizon.

      Different for subs though. Which I understand can get rather more hairy. I guess you get an idea of where the channels are by where the enemy ships go. And you’re more likely to be sticking your nose in places you really shouldn’t.

    2. x 7

      Re: Question?

      For some locations you'd use divers to survey the area

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Question?

      Satellite surveys are becoming very clever. Not sure if they can penetrate shallow water directly - or by inference.

  13. Jim Whitaker
    Thumb Up

    Encouraging

    Thank you for this. As an ex NO I found it very reassuring.

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