The repeated, rapid scurrying of a hand over paper interrupts the
faint squeak of an eraser that had broken the silence of the
pilothouse only moments before.
The slight scratch of a
The timid sounds, like those of a mouse
scampering through the walls of an old house, are the only noises
that betray a human presence in the dimly lit room.
red glow of a night lantern illuminates the chart in front of Petty
Officer 2nd Class Christopher New. He performs a quick calculation,
adjusts the compass legs to a wider setting, and smoothly arcs a
pale circle around the ship's current position – a prediction of
their location one hour in the future.
New is one of seven
quartermasters who serve aboard the amphibious transport dock ship
USS San Antonio (LPD 17). Their job is to safely navigate the ship
through the world's oceans, paying attention to a vast amount of
data encompassing everything including the depth of the water, ocean
currents, ship's speed, territorial boundaries, and even the
May 24, 2006 - The newest class of Amphibious Transport Dock
ship USS San Antonio (LPD 17) passes the amphibious assault ship USS
Kearsarge (LHD 3) while entering New York Harbor during the parade
of ships, Fleet New York Week 2006. Fleet Week has been sponsored by
New York City since 1984 in celebration of the United States sea
service. The annual event also provides an opportunity for citizens
of New York City and the surrounding Tri-State area to meet Sailors,
and Marines, as well as witness first hand the latest capabilities
of today's Navy and Marine Corps team. Fleet week includes dozens of
military demonstrations and displays, including public tours of many
of the participating ships. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate
Airman Dennard Vinson)
Since humans first began sailing the oceans, navigation
has been critical to the success of any voyage.
Consequently, the job of a quartermaster has existed in some
form or another for tens of thousands of years before New
became one of San Antonio's.
Even with the advent of
GPS and satellite imaging technologies, the job is no less
important or demanding. The U.S. possesses one of the
world's few blue-water navies capable of sustained maritime
operations worldwide. As such, quartermasters are expected
to be able to navigate the ship in waters that are wholly
“We still use
paper charts as our primary navigation tool [aboard San
Antonio],” said New. “When we begin voyage planning, we have
to determine where we're going, and then find out if we have
the charts for that area onboard. If not, we have to order
From there, the quartermasters work with the
ship's navigation officer to determine the track of their
voyage, which will sprawl across many charts as they
navigate around hazards, through straits, and keep outside
of foreign territorial waters, sometimes by only the breadth
of several hundred feet or yards. It's a daunting
mathematical task that offers little room for error.
“Planning is the most difficult part of the job,” said Lt.
j.g. Charles Cahoon, the ship's navigation officer. “We have
to predict where we will be on the route at a specific time
on a specific date days in advance, and things change so
quickly. One day we might slow down to do flight operations,
and then we have to readjust everything.”
quartermaster who is on duty, known as the Quartermaster of
the Watch, is responsible for recommending course
corrections and for periodically marking the ship's
position. They also determine dead-reckoning positions,
which are predictions of the ship's future location. The
dead-reckoning is updated every hour and every time the
ship's speed and course are adjusted. This can mean dozens
of small adjustments, erasing, and re-plotting in the span
of an hour.
“We also gather weather information like
temperature, sea state, and barometric pressure,” said New.
“Every six hours, we compile that into a report to send
Since the mid-2000's, the Navy has been in the
process of converting entirely to digital navigation. This
began with the introduction of the Electronic Chart Display
and Information Systems-Navy (ECDIS-N) standard, utilizing
the Voyage Management System (VMS) software.
process has been delayed due to budgetary constraints in
equipping the many ships of the fleet. San Antonio is one of
the last ships to still utilize traditional paper navigation
- something that is scheduled to change very soon.
“This is the last year we'll be using paper,” said Chief
Petty Officer Jussuam Cardoso, the navigation department
leading chief petty officer. “When this deployment is over,
I'm sending my guys off to school to learn the new systems.
When they get back, it'll take us a couple months to become
qualified with the new VMS, and then we'll be entirely
Charts and the open sea have gone
hand-in-hand for centuries. The compass, protractor,
triangles and dividers have been iconic of nautical
navigation from time immemorial.
of the Navy's navigation systems is inevitable and will lead
to more efficient navigation. Until then, San Antonio and
her quartermasters will be plotting a course according to
the scale of the chart – one inch at a time.
By U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Adam Austin
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