Is Reliance Upon Electronics Killing The Art Of Seamanship?


War Hero
I had the following mailed to me recently in draft form, as it was to be presented to the Institute of Seamanship for publication.

"After reading an article recently regarding the effects of ‘solar storms’, I was intrigued enough to start asking a few questions, the first of which I put to an Extra-Master Mariner, with 40+ years of experience, was,
“If the satellites go down, what happens?†I was floored by the response,
“Well, there are plenty more of them up there, so it’ll be OK.â€
“So what happens if they all go down simultaneously, possibly due to a blast of solar radiation?â€
“In that case, then, we’re buggered!†was the reply!

The following paragraph is from the NASA website, which contains some fascinating information…

“If a coronal mass ejection (CME) collides with the Earth, it can excite a geomagnetic storm. Large geomagnetic storms have, among other things, caused electrical power outages and damaged communications satellites. In space CMEs typically drive shock waves that produce energetic particles that can be damaging to both electronic equipment and astronauts that venture outside the protection of the Earth's magnetic field. Solar flares, on the other hand, directly affect the ionosphere and radio communications at the Earth, and also release energetic particles into space. Therefore, to understand and predict "space weather" and the effect of solar activity on the Earth, an understanding of both CMEs and flares is requiredâ€. (

That then started me thinking…
The key words, to my mind are “….caused electrical power outages and damaged communications satellitesâ€

In these days of increased transportation of goods and raw materials by sea, an exponential growth in cruise liners, and a year on year increase in leisure boating, would we still retain the requisite personal skills demanded to move a vessel from ‘A’ to ‘B’, should the electronic systems suddenly go off?

We are not talking here about the power simply being, effectively turned off. We are discussing the probability of the power surging to such a level that it effectively ‘fries’ all of the electronic components prior to burning out the generation equipment! Even unplugging the equipment from the power source would make no difference, as the electro-magnetic pulse would have sufficient power to burn out the equipment at component level!

Just imagine a large commercial vessel moving at 40Kts, when the Master finds that suddenly he has no electrics, which means no lighting, no GPS, no radio, no fluxgate compass, no RADAR, no SONAR, no echo sounder, no on-board computers, no engine-room telemetry, and in many cases no steering!
The engineers should in a few hours, be able to jury-rig and bypass the controls to manual, which would allow them to control speed and steering. Within 80 miles ??? Hopefully, the engine controls will ‘fail safe’, and maybe drop down to a ‘tick-over’. If all propulsion stops, then what……..??

Let us turn the clock back, not to the days of cat and hammocks, but rather look at the tools available at the time, which were updated with each new practical discovery.
“The skill and the art of navigation is to get from any starting point, to a position when pilotage takes overâ€
Starting with the Chronometer and the Sextant. I have grouped these together because, in navigation, the one will not work without the other.
The sextant combined with a chronometer, is one of the most powerful tools employed by the navigator, as it allows him to work out his longitudinal position – although, I must confess that even at my own most precise, the nearest I managed to work out our position was within 25 miles! If only they had kept the vessel still!

It has been noted that the Royal Navy is ‘downgrading the importance’ of the use of sextants for navigation, and in the commercial world of shipping, the use of radar alarms, satellite navigation systems, and satellite communications systems is now the norm.

Increasingly, the sextant is being ‘downgraded’ into a pretty mantelpiece ornament, rather than being kept as a fully functioning precision tool for the purposes of navigation.

ColRegs state that a “good lookout shall be maintained at all times by whatever means are availableâ€

With no RADAR, SONAR or echo-sounder, reliance would revert, once again to the ‘Mark One Eyeball’. A precision piece of equipment which when fully trained, is able to compute the approximate speed, closing range, distance and bearing of another vessel, landfall, etc.

The standard ‘Mark One Eyeball’ can also be trained to read, decipher and respond to semaphore, flag-code signals and Morse Code. Semaphore is no longer used for signalling. Morse Code is no longer a prerequisite for communications, and the use of single and multiple-letter code flags has now all but disappeared – with the possible exceptions of ‘A’ (I have a diver down: Keep well clear at slow speed), ‘B’ (I am taking in, discharging or carrying dangerous goods), ‘P’ (In harbour – all persons to report on board as the vessel is about to proceed to sea), and ‘Q’ (My vessel is “healthy and I request free pratique)."

Posters thoughts would be appreciated whilst I am considering a response.



War Hero
Re: Is Reliance Upon Electronics Killing The Art Of Seamansh

An electro-magnetic field strong enough to wipe out electrical equipment would be confined to a relatively small area. So while ships and vessels within that area would be affected the and possibly one or two geostationary satellites taken out of service the rest of the satellites would still be operational and shipping outside of the magnetic pulse area would still have their electronic equipment working.
Re: Is Reliance Upon Electronics Killing The Art Of Seamansh

This debate isn't limited to seamanship. In aviation, as GA aircraft become more advanced and automated, there is alot of concern that new pilots are becoming over-dpendant on the machine, rather than their own abilities. Then what happens when "the lights go out"?
On my last biennial flight review, I used an aircraft with all the bells and whistles (GPS, autopilot, etc.), but the instructor made me shut it all down and get out the paper chart and do it the old fashioned way.

As far as seamanship goes, I don't know what Navy (ours or yours) policy is on training, but the US Coast Guard seems to have the right idea. All officer cadets are trained aboard the barque EAGLE.

See here
Re: Is Reliance Upon Electronics Killing The Art Of Seamansh

They should be proficient in BOTH manual and electronic navigation. What use is all the electronic gear if it breaks down, is knocked out by a high altitude, EMP enhanced nuclear weapon, or affected by damage to the ship's power supply, etc during conflict. This is what worries me about all the yachties today who know how to use their laptop and electronic charts with downloadable corrections, but seem unable to use, update or read a paper chart. I find that really scary. What happens if the US switch off GPS and Europe turns off say EGNOS - some of these people are really going to be buggered then! Next thing you know you'll have self tying rope... :twisted: Now that would be useful! :lol:


Book Reviewer
Re: Is Reliance Upon Electronics Killing The Art Of Seamansh

Although we know that people on the bridge of a ship are becoming increasingly reliant upon GPS for navigation, its interesting to contrast this with the views of the ship-builder.

During the build of the LPDs I undertook a small amount of work at Barrow looking at the required degree of integrity of the overall navigation system, including GPS. The view of the design authority was that any systems provided by the ship builder were NOT the primary method of navigation and could not be relied upon for a high degree of positional accuracy. When I queried what the primary method was, I was told that he was uncertain as he wasn't a bridge-watchkeeper, however when pressed he stated that his assumption, and that adopted by the shipbuilding agency was that celestial navigation was the principal method of determining a ship's position supplemented by GPS.

Would any bridge-watchkeepers care to comment on this assumption, especially since this ship-builder has a significant involvement in other ongoing programmes such as T45 and the future carrier.


War Hero
Re: Is Reliance Upon Electronics Killing The Art Of Seamansh

While the possibility of a major " natural" calamity is always there, with a possible global impact, my thoughts have been on a more "local" level. With the extent of electrical automation, in submarines particularly, where if something does go wrong a speedy response is clearly essential. What provisions are made in the "new boats" for the old hand emergency and more importantly the training and ability of the crew to deal with such a situation. It does seem there is too great a dependency on the non manual developments but we will probably learn to deal with these things the hard way, trial and error?
Re: Is Reliance Upon Electronics Killing The Art Of Seamansh

All the seamanship skills have been handed down from the old Elizabethan Sailors, smugglers, Pirates etc, are you saying that they wasted their time? Are the seaman officers not taught seamanship anymore,or are they taught to rely on mechanical and electrical thingies? Perhaps a fishead Officer may care to comment?


War Hero
Re: Is Reliance Upon Electronics Killing The Art Of Seamansh

After ten in the Andrew and some twentyseven in the Merchant reaching the dizzy height of Chief Officer (Mate) my comments may have some small bearing on your problem - quite simply if someone (or something) stole all the electrics we'd be in deep poo! Navigationwise, cadets are not being taught astronav these days - don't need it, to costly! (can't be arsed) Bridge watchkeeping inside a nice warm comfortable bridge it's head in radar, undermanned I'm not going out there! I'm doing the radio watch (three different channels) it's cold and I can't read my book in the dark (no, seriously)!

As for seamanship - we are not allowed to splice wire anymore, something to do with lifting regulations, so when miles from land and a wire parts theres nobody who can, ship is short handed (on one Pannamex bulker some few years ago when to double up the watches - two lookouts etc and hand steering (autopilot is more accurate) the Bosun and the deck store keeper had to take a watch) No time for real seamanship anymore either to busy or sleeping/eating

Basically seamanship has gone by the board - the last time I 'pointed and becketed' a rope was in 1970 (just after the tot was stopped!) Bet nobody knows what I'm even talking about now!
Re: Is Reliance Upon Electronics Killing The Art Of Seamansh

Answer to the main question--------
yes it is and its a mark of progress or evolution .

Although the basics should still be taught in ship handling and ship safety.

Wires and cordage--the wire splice is left to experts and then load tested and usually tagged as tested. Although the new way in the throw away society is to use the spare !!

Navigation and communication most intricate circuits are usually protected and power supplies normally have battery back up power.

Manning--------the only thing I don't like ----most vessels are now undermanned because of the reliance on electro mechanical devices in machinery spaces. Compartment watchkeepers are becoming few and far between. Watchkeepers on control panels for overall surveillance -when the control panel has a glitch its bad news.

If all else fails as the old sayin goes --steer by magnetic :lol: :lol:
Re: Is Reliance Upon Electronics Killing The Art Of Seamansh

Perhaps another reason for the decline of the sextant is the mathematical calculations involved in determing position as against the ease with which one can determine one's apparent position using GPS supplemented by EGNOS. Are today's Navigating Officers up to the maths? ...or am I being cynical?


Re: Is Reliance Upon Electronics Killing The Art Of Seamansh

It's not the sums, any half good calculator could do the sums for you. The real problem is getting and staying in practice with a sextant. I understand that your colleagues in the USN are no longer taught astro-nav - why go to all the bother of learning a real skill when any numpty can read a lat/long off a display with no real understanding of how it got there or how good the reading may actually be.
Re: Is Reliance Upon Electronics Killing The Art Of Seamansh

Always_a_Civvy said:
Perhaps another reason for the decline of the sextant is the mathematical calculations involved in determing position as against the ease with which one can determine one's apparent position using GPS supplemented by EGNOS. Are today's Navigating Officers up to the maths? ...or am I being cynical?

All RN OOW are taught Astro- indeed it remains part of the base requirements for the award of a Navigation Watch Certificate (broadly equivalent to STCW 2/i). However, the manual method is not taught- all observations are computed by NAVPAC. There is no formal training given at all in the use of a sextant, other than an hours chat with a SPEC (N) at Collingwood. After this time, it is up to the individual to badger their Navigator for instruction. If you go to a ship with a SPEC (N), then you will have dipped in. On the other hand, if you go to a small ship (like myself) then your Navigator may well farm you out to somebody who has a clue (generally in the guise of loaning you to an FF/DD).

Despite not being taught to any particular depth, we still use the sextant more often than might be imagined- leadthrough ops are probably the most common example. I certainly feel that I could have done with more formal instruction during my training.