Monday, June 24, 2013

TCNAV complete!

I just returned home from Seattle after 3 weeks of Terrestrial Navigation at PMI. I will admit, it was one of the hardest academic sessions I've ever endured, mostly because of the time frame and complexity of the topics... new material, quick progression, and concepts that are foreign and hard to grasp at first. Most everyone hung well, but it was a great deal of studying and staring at numbers. The topics weren't that difficult, but we weren't allowed too much time to sit back and take it in. You keep up, or get behind. All said and done, we were able to understand everything needed and pass the exams and assessments, but it required some serious focus and determination, mixed with a little coffee and fire.

TCNAV Certificate

So, I passed. There were a few days during the session that I thought that I may not do so, but with a little help and extra study time, it all came together like a complex symphony of brass, woodwind, drums, and a little didgeridoo. Celestial Nav is on deck for next summer, and I'm sure we will once again get punched in the face while drinking from the fire hose.

I'm home for a little more than a month, and then crewing up at the end of July for another 30-40 day trip to Western Alaska.

My last day in Seattle was spent with Erin. She flew up Friday night and I did my best to give her a quick tour of Seattle's best before we hopped in the car for the 12hr drive back to Sac. Saturday was our 17th wedding anniversary, and during our short stint in town, we managed to get a quick tour of the important things... Alki Beach, PMI drive-by, Pike Place, Ballard, Fremont, the Pink Door and a few other fun sites along the way.

The rest of my classmates are still hard at work, completing their Lifeboatmen course this week in Seattle and Anacortes. I did mine in April, so I was able to head home early. School starts up again in October with a few good classes: Leadership, vessel Security Officer, Radar Observer Unlimited, ARPA, Contruction and Stability, Emergency Procedures, and Search and Rescue. Many topics spread out over 5 weeks and I'm sure the pace of the program will once again be challenging. I stole this quote from one of my classmates FB page that sums up my thoughts on the difficult classroom workload... "A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor". So, we continue on and "gitter-dun".

If you are reading this in preparation for joining the program, I have two pieces of advice, maybe 3 for the TCNAV class, which probably applies to a few of the courses in the program.

1. Put your social life on hold for 3 weeks and get good rest. It's like running a marathon and you need energy to keep up with those around you.

2. Don't assume that you'll do fine. Plan for the worst, prey for the best. It'll come at you fast, so pay attention and ask questions.

3. Don't "over-study". 3 hours per night max. I pulled a few 5-6 hour sessions at home and it fried my brain to the point where I couldn't think straight the next day.

Now, where did I put my flip flops and Modelo?.....

Friday, June 14, 2013

Navigating Chaos

Classroom: Where brain cells burn...

We just finished our 2nd week of Terrestrial Navigation with one more to go. This week, we spent each day on a new topic, moving through Tides, Currents, Amplitude of the Sun and finally Azimuth of the sun.

Tides and currents are obviously important to the mariner, and fairly interesting to learn. We can take a listed depth, and make some corrections based off of historical data that will give us an exact depth of the water at a given point in time for safe passage. The same goes for currents, and knowing the exact speed and direction of a current at a specific time can aid you in safe voyage planning.

Amplitude and Azimuth are similar in that you are taking a bearing to the sun and comparing that to various resources in an attempt to find compass error. The process is complicated, painstakingly long and stressful. It's all based off of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), so you must first figure out a few things before moving through the equations. I got lost converting Local time to GMT in the first hour of class and couldn't grasp the concept to save my life and then we moved on to the next part. One question could potentially take 30 minutes to solve with all the trig and table cross-referencing.

The pace of the class, combined with the complexity of the material has helped me draw the conclusion that this was the hardest academic week that I've ever endured (including over 7 years of college classes). There is an amazing amount of stress knowing that we have a test on the material next week that requires a 100% to pass. You spend 10 minutes basing your entire equation on a certain time frame, only to realize that your time is off and the entire equation must be re-written, or that you used East Instead of West and must start over, doh!. I really want to study some of the other items that we will be tested on, but I first need to get a grasp around Azimuth and Amplitude before picking up the other topics again.

I love navigation and could see myself getting really into it, but the past few days have thrown a wet towel over my flames. The sad part is that these cool functions of navigation aren't being used that much on the water anymore because of technology. We rely on modern technology to give us everything we need and we trust that its accurate. If satellites and GPS are ever to stop functioning, there will be a bunch of lost people out there. I would really like to understand all the concepts and know them like the back of my hand, but even if I could possibly do that, it will get lost if not used. The boats that I'll be working on don't have the tools to take a bearing to the sun or the stars, so even if I tried to practice, I couldn't. So, we jump through the hoops that the Coast Guard lays down and we spend time learning things that potentially and unfortunately, may never get used.

I now know why sailors have a reputation for over-indulging in drink... Because their brains are full of crazy complex equations and they must "silence the voices" more often.

So, this weekend I study and try to find a way to learn. Hopefully the planets align and somehow I can pull it off on test day, and put this stuff to rest. I keep trying to remind myself that there are other Mates and Officers out there less bright than me who have somehow passed this class. Its not rocket science, but it is complex and it comes at you fast. The best analogy for this class, is that its like trying to take a sip from a fire hose. I try to convince myself that this is some sort of test of perseverance and only the strong-willed will survive. At least for now, that simple thought makes me smile.

I'm tough, I'll figure it out...

Shaking it off at Hooverville


Friday, June 7, 2013

General Navigation Round 1: Check!

Approximately 15 cups of coffee and 5 days later, I've successfully swallowed, digested and regurgitated onto paper, the basic Navigation knowledge that is required of the Coast Guard, passing within the "allowed parameters". We still have many more Navigation assessments and examinations to take over the next 2 weeks, but at least we can put some of it to rest.

The culmination exam at the end of three weeks includes bits and pieces from the whole session and we have a practical test in a few days where we work through a series of problems on charts, plotting positions, set and drift, ranges, DR's and other fun stuff. The most difficult part for me so far, has been getting my head around magnetic variation, deviation, compass error, gyro error and how it all comes together for one big "navigational salad" of goodness. There are about 4-5 forces that some into play when calculating a position on a chart, and you'd better not screw one of them up or you might run aground or kill your crew. Most of it is simply remembering the acrostic sentences and when to add or subtract a degree here or there depending on what you are trying to extrapolate. It's a lot to remember and digest in a short period of time, but somehow it's slowly sinking in.

After class today, a few of us gathered at Hoovertown, the local watering hole, for some stress release. It was THE tastiest, coldest beer I've had in a long time... Well deserved!

Tomorrow, I'm going to a Mariner's game at Safeco Field and I might have an opportunity to go sailing on the Schooner Zodiac (a 160' sailing vessel) on Sunday. Still waiting to hear for sure if the sailing opportunity will come to fruition, but definitely going to jump at a chance to do that if at all possible.

In addition to the fun this weekend, I need to study for Monday's exam. It should be a bit easier since it's mostly chart problems, but we need to score a 100% to pass. The worst part, is that the Coast Guard is notorious for making questions much harder than they need to be, as if this stuff wasn't already taxing enough on the brain. They throw in extra details that aren't pertinent, and they word the questions in a way that makes your head spin around. My only guess is that they are trying to weed out the weak ones. I have news, this guy isn't going anywhere... Even if I fail and have to retake it, I'm here for the long haul!

So, I'm gonna make some dinner, kick back, watch a movie and let my brain untangle the nasty mess I've made of it this week. Then pick myself up and prepare for round 2 of this 3-round battle.



Monday, June 3, 2013

Academic Phase 2: Terrestrial Navigation - Day 1

I wrapped up my 3-week vacation at home, packed the car, kissed the family, hugged the dogs and drove straight through to Seattle arriving yesterday afternoon in a car plastered with NorCal bugs.

This is my bug collection.  I collected them between Sac and Redding.  Ick.

It's a 12hr drive, but I don't mind it too much. After getting my room set up and everything unpacked, my roommate and I headed down to the Georgetown Liquor Company for a few cold ones. The weather up here has been awesome, and a one-mile walk felt great after sitting in a Subaru for most of the day. The walk home was uphill and slightly more challenging after said cold-one.

School kicked off this morning at 08:00 and it was good to see all the familiar faces again. Everyone had stories to tell about their sea phases, and for the most part, it sounds like everyone enjoyed their time on the water. A few classmates had their worlds turned around when the companies they were supposed to be working for, decided not to take them at the last minute. But a few phone calls from the admin folks at PMI and they soon found other companies to take them in (special thanks to Crowley and Sause Bros for rescuing my shipmates).

We are now combined (at least for this phase) with the "AB to Mate" program students, so our class size grew from 14 (we lost one) to 23. All good people so far, but I've only met a few. One of them is an retired Navy Lieutenant that is beginning his Merchant Marine career as an AB.

So, we spent the day going over the basics of Nav., talking about how the earth is broken into segments, meridians, longitudes, parallels, then magnetic variation and deviation etc. and then went on to refresh on what we will find on charts (I.e. buoys, lights, depths, scales, etc.). It was mostly a refresher since we've learned basic navigation stuff in Phase 1.

After lunch, we pulled out the charts and ran through about 15 questions similar to what we would find on the Coast Guard exam. Lots of questions that contain too much information to confuse you, and details that aren't pertinent to the question. My lab partner and I powered through them pretty quickly after scratching our heads a little. It's mostly plotting positions and Dead Reckoning (DR), then taking bearings from objects to determine your position following your last known spot and figuring Lat/Long. We also had to cross reference the Coast Pilot to determine which buoys/ATONs where which (Aids to Navigation).

It's going to be a ton of information to swallow in 3 weeks, but somehow people manage to pass the exam. We have to score an 87% or higher to pass, which doesn't really allow much margin for error. The most difficult part so far is getting your head around magnetic variation and compass deviation, which are two completely different factors that have to be considered and adjusted for when taking bearings and plotting positions. Mag Variation is the difference between true north and magnetic north, and it varies depending in where you are on the earth. Magnetic Deviation, is the forces around you (essentially stuff on the boat) that causes your compass be slightly off. There are a few formulas that help you compensate for all these abnormalities and a few acrostic sentences, like "Can Dead Men Vote Twice", or the opposite "True Virgins Make Dull Companions" (if using the formula in reverse). They stand for Compass, Deviation, Magnetic, Variation, and True. So, you basically fill in the grid of the components that you know, and use formulas to find the missing variables... Then add or subtract here and there for the magic number in bearings... I know, sounds boring, but one small mistake and you're cruising to China instead of Hawaii.

At any rate, this was just the first day and it will only get more complicated as we progress. We were told to put our social lives on hold for a few weeks while we eat, drink, sleep Nav, but I'm gonna need a few power-breaks in between.

I'll add more pics and updates as we move through the course.

BTW, If you read the very early posts in my blog, you will understand why I regurgitate and get technical about the content of the classes. It's a learning mechanism for me and also the main reason why I began this blog in the first place.... But feel free to comment if you have questions.

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