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Alpheratz, Betelgeuse, Zubenelgenubi

In 1966 we studied the tactics to use in triremes, or what to do with your triple-decker rowboat when attacked by another triple-decker rowboat. The course was called a history course.

In 1967 we studied celestial navigation, or how to use a hand-held sextant and several volumes of math tables to figure out where you are, if the weather is good enough for you to see the stars and the horizon clearly at the same time. We assumed that this was a history course, also.

In 1970 I was stationed aboard an old diesel powered submarine. We got a new battery installed, and we went to sea for three weeks for a combination of sea trials and RefTra after being in port for more than two months.

Then things got exciting. We were given thirty days to get ready for a five-month NATO exercise, ranging from Gibraltar to the Norwegian Sea.

So we crossed the Atlantic from Charleston, South Carolina to Lisbon, Portugal, running on the surface at eleven knots. On the third day of the fourteen-day crossing, the Signalman First Class came to the Navigator, who was the third most senior officer aboard, and said, "Sir, we have run out of LORAN. I have been running a dead reckon since yesterday morning." This was the old LORAN A, not the much newer, much better LORAN C that later served so well for so long.

And we did not have a Quartermaster aboard. We had a Signalman instead.

No, we weren't lost. However, we did not know exactly where we were.

The senior officers looked around quite concerned for a few moments. Then one of them brightened and looked at me and said, "You were in school most recently. Tell the Signalman to find the sextant for you so that you can shoot evening stars."

He was not joking.

We found the sextant, and I went to the bridge of the submarine to get a fix. I did not know the names of the stars. When the horizon was about to disappear with the twilight, I shot the elevations of several stars and the signalman noted the precise time of each of my sightings. We then went below, to the conning tower, to figure out where we were.

By working backwards, I was finally able to figure out the names of four of the stars that I had sighted. After then refiguring forwards, I was able to find out where we had been at 6:00 p.m. Of course, it was now 2:00 a.m. Like a surprising number of old technologies, celestial navigation with a hand-held sextant really worked.

For the next ten days, that was how we found our way to Europe. Of course, by the third day, it was taking twenty minutes instead of eight hours to calculate each fix. Alpheratz, Betelgeuse, and Zubenelgenubi were just a few of the stars we shot. We met up with a bunch of destroyers and an aircraft carrier right on schedule, and commenced to play our games.

The moral of the story is, pay attention in history class.

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