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USS Cape St. George navigator Lt. j.g. Tim Shanley, right, and Quartermaster Akil Brathwaite monitor the ship’s position using the Navy’s new electronic navigation technology.

USS Cape St. George navigator Lt. j.g. Tim Shanley, right, and Quartermaster Akil Brathwaite monitor the ship’s position using the Navy’s new electronic navigation technology. (Courtesy of National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency)

WASHINGTON — Sailors on the USS Cape St. George have traded in their pencils and paper charts for CD-ROMS, and are plotting their course across the ocean electronically.

The ship is the first in the Navy fleet to switch from paper maps to a new digital charting system, linked to global positioning satellites and instant updates on ocean obstructions. Sailors on board were certified earlier this year, and began using the new technology in May.

“It’s an easier tool for them, but more importantly, this is a safer tool,” said Bob Freeman, spokesman for the office of the navigator of the Navy.

“We’re taking human error out of it. You won’t have a tired quartermaster trying to plot points on a chart in the middle of the night.”

The new system also may have been able to prevent the accident aboard the USS San Francisco in January, Freeman said.

One sailor was killed when the submarine crashed into an undersea mountain. Navy investigators said navigators were using a map that did not show the hazard; other charts available did show the danger.

The electronic system includes flashing warning lights for a ship’s bridge in case an underwater hazard is detected, Freeman said.

“Whether you’re paying attention to the maps or not, you’ll hear the alarms as you approach an obstacle,” he said.

The Navy, which has been working on the new technology since 1998, plans to install and use the new digital maps on the entire fleet by 2009. Freeman said several ships, including the submarine USS Oklahoma City, will transfer to the new system by the end of the year.

The change won’t eliminate the need for basic navigation knowledge, Freeman said, and officials still haven’t decided exactly what changes in training sailors will see in coming years.

But one big change will be the information available at their fingertips. Stephen Honda, spokesman for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, said navigation charts for the entire ocean can be held on 29 CD-ROMs, instead of more than 5,000 paper charts that sailors use today.

And, because the on-board computer is in charge of monitoring the geography and plotting courses, the ships’ drivers can react much more quickly to problems.

“When you’re navigating off a paper chart, you have lookouts using visual fixes to guide you,” Honda said. “As they send in their times and marks, the process ends up running 20 to 30 seconds behind. With the electronic navigation, you know exactly where you are now.”

Honda said the computerized maps also allow information on landmarks and port facilities to be superimposed on the nautical charts as ship officials decide where to go.

“This is like going from sail to steam,” he said. “It’s a major change in the way we navigate.”

So far, sailors on the USS Cape St. George have been pleased with the new system.

“It is much easier to correct and change the charts,” said quartermaster Aaron Haverty in an e-mail to Stripes. “The new system is a vast improvement compared to the old forms of electronic navigation.”

Freeman said for now ships that switch to the digital maps will still be required to carry paper back-ups with them.

“We expect some old-timers to say, ‘This isn’t how we used to sail ships,’” he said. “But it’s absolutely where we’re headed.”

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