Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Ask the MSSC—you have questions, we have answers

Many of you have already utilized the Proceedings online reader survey. We’re grateful for your input and we carefully read and consider each submission. In addition to your feedback on the magazine, you have also used this question form to pose questions of your own, such as:

“Why is celestial navigation still a test subject for merchant marine officers, and are there are any plans to discontinue it?”

“Why is the TWIC not required for public vessels sailors?”

“I would like to see an update on the Towing Safety Advisory Committee. What has been accomplished? What is the path forward? Are there going to be third-party inspectors? How would an organization become approved to be an inspector or auditor?”

Good questions—all. Better still: We have answers from the USCG Marine Safety and Security Council. We’ll post answers to these questions monthly here on the Coast Guard Marine Safety blog.

Why is celestial navigation still a test subject for merchant marine officers, and are there are any plans to discontinue it?

Answered by the USCG National Maritime Center and the Office of Operating and Environmental Standards.

Celestial navigation is still included on license exams for ocean routes for a number of reasons.

First, celestial navigation is among the required competencies in the applicable part of the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, 1978, as amended (STCW). For example, the minimum standard of competence for an officer in charge of a navigational watch includes the “[a]bility to use celestial bodies to determine the ship’s position.” The STCW is undergoing a comprehensive review and celestial navigation is among the areas receiving attention.

While it is too early to tell the outcome of this review, the position of the United States is that while the role of celestial navigation has significantly diminished, it should not be eliminated entirely. Celestial navigation performs an important function as a backup means of navigation in the event that other navigation modes fail.

Second, the use of either azimuths or amplitudes of a celestial body is the only way to determine accurately a ship’s compass error when operating outside of the visual range of terrestrial objects. The United States supports limiting the celestial navigation requirements to those necessary to perform its backup navigation role and in order to perform compass error corrections.

It is worth noting that although we have not eliminated celestial navigation from our license examinations, we have made changes that reflect its diminished use in everyday watchkeeping. In early 2002, we reduced the minimum passing grade for celestial navigation exam modules from 90 percent to 80 percent. We believe this reduction is consistent with the reduced (but not eliminated) role celestial navigation plays in modern watchkeeping.

Notwithstanding our agreement that the role of celestial navigation has diminished, its use in prudent navigation has not been entirely eliminated, and the Coast Guard does not have any immediate plans to eliminate celestial navigation from its license examinations through the amendment of our regulations found at 46 CFR §10.910.

For more information:
If you have more questions, please send an e-mail to, subject line “Ask the MSSC.” We’ll forward your questions to the Marine Safety and Security Council and publish the answers.