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Canadian Navy keeps sextant skills ship-shape, even today

In the age of sonar, radar and GPS, why are Canada's sailors still training on a piece of 18th Century technology for navigation?

The sextant dates back to the 18th Century, and was used for early charting

Lt.-Cmdr. Daniel O'Regan shows off his favourite piece of almost 300-year-old navigational technology: the sextant.

Even though we live in the high-tech GPS era when it comes to getting around, it turns out the Royal Canadian Navy still trains with the very low-tech sextant for navigation.

The sextant, a tool that dates back to the 18th Century, uses astronomical objects and the horizon to calculate a ship's position.

According to Lt.-Cmdr. Daniel O'Regan, head of navigational training at the Naval Officer Training Program in Esquimalt, sextant training is kept up as a precautionary measure.

"It's all about redundancies," he told On The Island's Sterling Eyford. "If our electronic equipment went down, and all of that is certainly not infallible, or if there was solar flares or space weather and our satellite signals went down … we would be able to keep going down the line and be able to keep the ship safe."

Unlike the US Navy, which only recently picked the sextant back up as a precaution against cyberattacks on GPS systems, Canada's sailors have never put the device down, according to Lt.-Cmdr. O'Regan.

All watchkeepers and navigators on a ship are required to be proficient with a sextant, and they are required to practise sextant use while at sea at least once every 180 days.

"It's a skill set that if you let erode, it's very hard to get back because it's not an easy piece of equipment to use or train on," O'Regan said.

"Once you get good at it offshore, you can get within a nautical mile of where the ship actually is."

O'Regan says that when sailors first get their hands on a sextant, they usually think the gadgets are "pretty cool," and O'Regan agrees.

"It sort of makes you part of a navigational community that we're still using the same skillset that the sailors in Captain Cook's age would have used," he said. "There's parts of Canada where Captain Cook and various other hydrographers and cartographers have used sextants to develop those charts. It makes you part of a big club."

Navy instructor shows off old school navigation technique 0:38

To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: In modern era, Canadian navy keeps up its old school navigation skills

With files from Sterling Eyford

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