navigation training on mir

Sturmansky Uchenik

During my voyages on MIR I received the possibility to get on-the-scene bridge watch keeping training.
This was a great experience, fantastic practice and showed me a lot of new sides of my beloved ship.


25.05.03 Part I: first steps 

During the 0-4-watch (00:00-04:00 and 12:00-16:00h) I took a navigational watch on the bridge under the supervision of the 2nd mate (Andrey Orlov). With me were 2 cadets of the upper semesters from the Admiral Makarov State Maritime Academy (Russia). Our duties were to do all navigation work necessary for the voyage, to care for the steering (check the helmsman or take over ourselves if necessary) and to learn and practise special navigational techniques such as celestial navigation.

Andrey is a very good teacher. I know him for 5 years now and was very glad when I was told that I would work with him. When under sails I was often let free to decide a course just after wind and sails or to try to bring her as high to the wind as I could without loosing speed - but under taking into account the ability of the trainee at the helm...

The 2 cadets were absolutely different. One of them was not too enthusiastic about his practice on MIR. He said he would have preferred a "real" ship (he meant a cargo ship). He was not very effective and seemed to be glad if the other cadet or I took over some of his duties. The other cadet was really tough. He worked quite professional and had a well-based knowledge. He did what was necessary and took any chance to practise things which are not common on commercial vessels any more.

For me, being on the way towards a yachtmaster certificate, it was the first experience to really doing this navigation work. However, after a few watches I found my rhythm to do the things.

I learned not to rely on things like GPS, but take any possible chance to double check position and progress by bearings. I also learned to trust my eyes and ears more than any technical equipment - especially when under sails at night. We had one night when we sailed hard by the wind and could not see the sails. Our wind detector was out or order. The only way to find out if the sails are still fully standing were our ears. I was fascinated when Andrey switched on the rigging light just seconds before a squall hit us. He had heard it coming. His fast reaction made it possible to bear off immediately and before the heel became really big. Later Andrey told me what had made him aware. A line had started slacking against a spar somewhere and had produced a noise which had not been there before.

I also made my first steps into celestial navigation. The first try was a mere disaster. With 6 Bft. and my sea legs not yet back after the winter it seemed to be impossible to observe the sun through the sextant. If the master had not stood behind me I would have thrown the instrument over board... Finally I made something like a fix. I went inside to start with the calculations. Standing at the chart desk with the eyes fixing the tables in microscopic script the main result was that I became seasick... Although quite green in the face I managed to calculate a position. Andrey looked at it: "Bay of Biscay! Well at least it is in the water..." Actually we were in the middle of the North Sea.

The cadet kept me going. He told me that it needs at least 50 times to be able to make a good fix. So I tried whenever the weather allowed it and finally I managed to make a position at least in the same sea area.

Technical navigation however is an important part of nowadays work on commercial vessels. With MIR educating future watch officers of these ships she of course has all that modern stuff and I also was able to work with ARPA. This is like a Rolls Royce of radar navigation and to make a plot directly from the radar onto the electronic sea chart is cool. Of course the cadets loved the ARPA. But Andrey taught us that the main duty while working with radar it to search the horizon with binoculars for every new target that appears on the radar. ARPA can show you the direction and speed of the vessels in your surrounding, but it says nothing about the kind of vessel which appears.

Another important part of the bridge watch is the radio watch. It was a surprise to me to see that in the entire Gulf of Finland most radio traffic is held in Russian language.

What else did we do during our watch? Well, of course lookout for the weather, interpret the weather fax and Navtex messages, write the logbook and decide all the various questions with which crew members and trainees come to the bridge.

Many very good opportunities to learn were provided by Captain Timoshkov. He is great in ship-handling and manoeuvring - not only under sails but also under engine. In his manoeuvres I was allowed to take the helm to experience directly how it was made.

But I also learned about the not so cool sides of the work as watch officer. 16 dog watches in a row mean that in some nights it takes a lot of coffee to keep your eyes open. The radar screen has a quite hypnotic effect and on a gently rolling ship without sight of any land or other traffic the chance to fall asleep tends to 100% by the moment when you lean your back to the wall.

I also learned that "ready to take over" means "absolutely ready" - you did not forget your warm jacket or yyour hat which you might need later, you have been to the toilet before and you do not have any other things to do which might occupy your thinking. Once you entered the bridge and took over the watch you have it for the next 4 hours and you cannot leave your post until somebody releases you.

What was also very interesting was the contrast between yachting education (me) and professional nautical education (cadets). Where they were used to do complicated calculations I sometimes tended more to traditional and more easy methods. We discussed the advantages and disadvantages of both and finally found out that it makes sense to know both ways and be it to check the results of your favourite method.

Interesting was that Captain Timoshkov sometimes also prefers simple and effective methods. While anchoring he simply spit into the water to check if the ship stopped moving.

All and all it was an interesting time I spent there and I hope very much that I will be doing more of this during my next MIR trips. The MIR is a huge toy and it is great to be allowed to play with her! In fact I was very lucky to receive the possibility to mreceive this training on the MIR. She is simply a wonderful ship and to be an active part of the whereas and when's of her is a thrill. Well, as I said before, this practice was a great experience and I am looking forward to continuing with it.


20.06.03 - part II: routine work of the navigator

Part II of my practice just went by. This time the situation was slightly different. First of all I worked with Chief Mate this time. As Andrey, the officer I had worked together with last time was on leave now, I had asked chief mate, if I could come into his watch because I did not want to work with an officer I did not know at all. Luckily Jury agreed and so I was on watch from 04.00-08.00 and 16.00-20.00h this time. 

I must say that these times fit much better into my biological rhythm and I was not so tired as I had been in the 0-4 watch. It also saved me from working with the sextant as now the noon position was not my problem any more.

Another difference was that at the moment there are no senior cadets on MIR and so I was the only navigation apprentice on the bridge. Jury and I had agreed that I would take over as many of the duties of the watch officer during this voyage as possible and he would only have an eye on this to make sure I would not sink the ship.

So my main job were the daily routines of the navigation watch, like making a position every hour, checking the effects of bad steering (we had only helmsmen who were at the wheel for the first time during the voyage as all cadets were new and all trainees also...) on our course, correcting the course for drift and currents, doing the lookout (as we could not rely on the lookout of the cadets yet), deciding in tight situations according to the COLREGS (it is all very easy if you have only 2 ships on the scene, but things can get pretty tricky if there are a lot of them and anything you or somebody else does will influence them all), work with ARPA and listen to the VHF. 

I also received some good training in the work with weather information as Capt. Timoshkov took the time to discuss all weather faxes with me. I think that meteorology is a very interesting subject, especially when you are underway on a sailing vessel.

So what can I say - I received some new knowledge and what is even more important, I received some more experiences. Can't wait to continue...


15.09.03 - part III: sailing

Autumn provided new chances to learn. I received a sailing lesson from one of the world's best sailing ship captains. While MIR stayed at the anchor in front of Heringsdorf/Usedom two day trips were held. The command of the vessel had changed meanwhile. Some weeks ago Capt. Timoshkov had left the ship for vacation and Captain Viktor Antonov had taken over again. First I was a bit insecure if it would be okay that I go on with my navigation studies while he - the famous captain - was on board, but there was no problem. Like before I was allowed to do chart work, lookout and radar observation. Additionally Viktor even let me to stay on the bridge and assist him during the sail maneuvers. After he had been teaching me some sailing theory last winter now the time had come to see how it is done in practice.

Especially the day trip on Sunday provided possibilities to learn. Viktor Antonov decided to sail the entire day trip without even starting the engine. First maneuver  - leaving the anchorage under sails. An innteresting maneuver which is only seldom sailed on tall ships of that size any more. Later a tack and different courses to the wind. Finally anchoring under sails. 

Viktor has a very special way to command the vessel. There are no loud orders, only short commands to indicate when what is to be done. If necessary he commands every sail after the other to get the perfect timing for the tack. He expects his crew to do nothing before they received the very command for it. When watching Viktor working one gets the impression that he feels everything that happens on the deck and in the sails with all his senses. Whenever I reported him that a certain sail was aback now or the ship had started to move forward again he already knew it even without looking.

While we were waiting for the ship to go through the wind he found the time to explain to me what he was doing and why. For the first time since I started sailing on MIR I got the full picture of how to actually tack a ship with 26 sails and what  parameters to look after during the move. The tack Viktor sailed on Sunday was perfect. Even though the wind was very variable we lost less than 1/2 length of the hull to windward. 

Afterwards the usual routine work of plotting the position and new course into the sea chart and then time for a coffee...

15.03.04 - part IV: pilotage

The Spring 2004 brought another aspect of my practice on the bridge. The new sailing season started with a number of short trips from Hamburg to the German Bight and back. The river Elbe and especially the Elbe estuary is known as difficult and in some weather conditions dangerous area. So I particularly welcomed the decision of Captain Timoshkov (who now returned from his vacations) to let me be the main helmsman and work together with the river pilots for these trips. 

While steering with the joystick one is standing directly next to the ARPA screen and receives a good possibility to compare the course commands give by the pilot with the radar picture and with the reality outside. At the same time I could hear all VHF communication which was relevant for us and learn how it was done. A big thank you to all the pilots who were so kind to show me important buys or marks and explain me their decisions. A big advantage for me in this case was that I was able to understand all 3 languages spoken on the bridge at that time: Russian, English and German. 

After 9 times steering MIR up or down the Elbe I now got really familiar with the river and it's tides and currents, lights and buoys. I learned a lot and now feel ready to navigate a yacht in these waters.

12.06.07 - part V: returning on the MIR

Three years passed by since I had last been sailing on MIR. After these Elbe trips I had taken the big step from hobby sailing to professional seafaring and in-between I had been sailing on a variety of most different sailing vessels, old ones, new ones, brigs, barques, barkentines, schooners and some cargo ships. I had sailed in the capacities of deck hand, bosun, mate and was now in the middle of a study of nautical sciences in Germany  to finally become a professional certified navigational officer in the merchant fleet. So actually I was now a cadet...

On the MIR meanwhile Jury who had been chief mate when I left the ship had become master with Andrey being chief mate.  Like 3 years before the MIR spent the winter months in Hamburg and in Spring the day trips on the Elbe were done. Again I took the helm for those trips, this time being able to apply all the skills and experiences I had collected on other ships and all the theoretical backgrounds I had gathered in my study.

So came that at the beginning of the new season I gladly took on the chance of another two weeks of bridge practice on a voyage from Warnemuende via Travemuende around Skagen to Bremerhaven. The main idea of this practice now being to pass my knowledge of steering and sail handling to the new cadets, to practise bridge watch keeping and radar observation and to learn ship handling from Jury and his officers.

I had meanwhile received a different view on the ship. What had once appeared to me like pure magic had now become a matter of technical skills and mathematical equations. Sails had turned into profiles and tacking or wearing the ship had become matters of forces and moments. Knowledge of turning circles, wheel over points and forces of inertia influenced my steering.  Radar observation had turned from mere detecting of targets to judging a risk of collision and calculating time and execution of manoeuvres to avoid them. Bridge watch had turned from trying not to stand too much in the way to being a useful member of the bridge team.

I also could now really appreciate what a phantastic ship MIR is. Compared with the other ships I had been on or which I had experienced in the simulation in our academy her manoeuvreing characteristics are almost unbelievably good. A slim and fast hull is combined with modern technology like a balanced rudder, a variable pitch propeller and a very sensible hydraulic steering gear. She remains fully steerable down to speeds of less than one knot. In course changes her overswing angle rarely exceeds 2-3 degrees. Her rig is well balanced and well-trimmed her windward performance is increadible even in light winds.

I thoroughly enjoyed this time on MIR and think that I learned in more there than I could have had in the same time in my academy (which unfortunately does not own school ship).

this page was updated 10/07