FORT EUSTIS, Va., Aug. 16, 2011 -- Army ground forces are trained to recognize a number of terrain features and use a map to make their way from point A to point B. It's called Land Navigation and learning it is a requirement from basic combat training, with refresher training part of every leadership school Soldiers attend as they make their way up in rank.

Army mariners who sail the waterways of the world learn the same skills except the features guiding their course are astronomically located.

Welcome to celestial navigation. People who found high school algebra to be a challenge should prepare for a rough ride. The math skills required for successful celestial navigation are, to say the least, massive. On the clearest day, in the best of weather, putting one's numeric skills to use can prove to be a real bear.

"Celestial navigation is a required portion of the marine deck officer course," said Chief Warrant Officer Thomas Vanwychen, instructor, Marine Operations Division, U.S. Army Transportation School, Fort Lee, Va. The marine operations instructors are assigned to Fort Lee with duty at Fort Eustis, Va.

"A benefit of this class is that upon graduation of the course, the warrant officer students can apply through the Coast Guard to receive a 200-ton vessel master's license," Vanwychen explained. "This license enables the mariners to be a commercially licensed 200-ton vessel master and offers them a competitive job skill as vessel masters when they one day leave the Army. It is the commercial equivalent to their Army mariner job."

Standing on the bridge of the LSV-1 the group of six students, flanked by two instructors, use a variety of instruments to gather data required for plotting positions on a chart.

"The students use navigational instruments to determine the height of a celestial body," explained Chief Warrant Officer Vanwychen. "Once they have the height, they record the data and incorporate that information into a detailed mathematical formula to obtain a line of position."

Do not underestimate the necessity of strong math skills. This course can prove daunting for even the best navigator.

"When it comes down to it, the celestial navigation portion of this course is the most challenging," said Chief Warrant Officer Vanwychen. "The demands on an individual throughout this course make it one of the Army's most challenging technical schools that any warrant officer will attend."

Testimony to the level of difficulty involved in the training is expressed by a current student.

"It's definitely the most challenging part of the course," said Chief Warrant Officer Ned Walsh, 10th Transportation Battalion, 7th Sustainment Brigade, "but I feel it is a right of passage to get to the next level of certification as an Army mariner."

Alvin Lipson, a retired Army Marine Operations warrant officer, and a Marine Operations Division instructor at the Army transportation school stresses the importance of course.

"It's the basis for open water navigation skills," he said. "Celestial navigation skills enable the Army mariner to better understand and utilize the electronic navigation equipment that is on board the larger Army watercraft. Out of the four-and-a half month course, one month is spent entirely on this skill set which is critical for our military mariners."

Use it or lose it -- celestial navigation skills are not something to be left on the back burner.

"This is definitely a perishable skill set," explained Chief Warrant Officer Kevin Willis, harbormaster, 545th Harbormaster Detachment, 45th Sustainment Brigade, Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. "This course sets us apart from the other services and is recognized by the Coast Guard. It is what allows Army mariners to obtain a 200-ton vessel master license."

Page last updated Tue August 16th, 2011 at 00:00