Fade to Black Port Ops Sailors Undergo Nighttime Navigation Training

By Donna Cipolloni, NAS Patuxent River Public Affairs

PATUXENT RIVER, Md.—As twilight waned and darkness descended, a procession of boats chugged away from the NAS Patuxent River Port Operations dock, Aug. 6. On board three of those vessels were Sailors being put to the test of navigating the waters of the Chesapeake Bay – in pitch black.

Officially known as the Reduced Visibility Navigation component of the Navy Small Boat Coxswain Training Certification program, the three-day course culminated with the nighttime navigation run, designed to test the Sailors’ newly acquired knowledge and skills.

“We do it at night because we don’t have a lot of fog here and if it’s nighttime, there’s definitely reduced visibility,” explained Dave Wick, NAS Patuxent River Port Operations installation program director.

Wick never chooses an evening with a fullmoon; preferring the diminished light of a new moon instead. Add heavy cloud cover and light rain – the conditions the night of the trial – and visibility was as reduced as it gets.

“The winds were 10-15 [knots] out of the north/northeast and the waves were two to three feet high, maybe even four feet at times,” Wick said. “They were going to have some ‘fun’ out there.”

Following about 300 yards behind the training boats were three support boats, for safety, and a central command boat monitoring the radio to make sure no one lost communications with anyone else.

GPS was not allowed. As the boats bounced over the churning water and sliced through the gloomy evening, the Sailors’ NOAA charts and compass – and what they had learned in the previous two days – were the only navigational tools at their disposal.

Engineman 1st Class Clayton Caswell was one of those participating. He and his training mates followed a pre-charted course that targeted various channel buoys and covered an approximate 30 mile distance, taking them over to the eastern side of the bay and down to Hooper’s Island Light, before returning to Pax River.

“It was the first time I was ever out at night and I was a little nervous in the beginning,” Caswell admitted, “but after reaching the first couple buoys, I became confident in the training we received and with my being able to utilize it.”

Buoys play a significant role in nighttime navigation, as specific ones blink at certain timed intervals.

“For example, the chart tells us that G1 will blink every 2.5 seconds, or G5 will blink every ten seconds,” Caswell explained. “So when it’s pitch black, you can tell which one is in the distance. We followed the navigation plan we had mapped out and just made our course.”

Restricted to red, green and white, the color of lights that mark vessels and other navigation aids, such as channel markers, are of vital importance. Knowing the navigation light patterns can help identify any type of vessel and its situation on the water – whether it’s anchored or moving, what direction it’s traveling, whether it’s towing something, etc.

“We encountered about five boats that night,” Caswell said, “and by looking at their lights, we could tell exactly what they were doing and could steer clear of them.”

The group took roughly 2.5 hours to complete most of the course, but had to cut it a little short when the command boat spotted lightning down near Point Lookout and called them back in to Pax River.

When asked how the trainees did, Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Jason Costell, who served as an instructor for the navigation portion of the certification program, was pleased with the results.

“Overall, everyone did well,” he said. “If we had an oil spill and needed a boat [because, at Pax River, oil containment is Port Ops’ primary purpose] we could call them in as boat coxswains – and they would now be able to assist us with any evolution we’d need.”

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