Weather Watch

‘Lost at Sea’ memorial in Cayucos honors those who braved the ocean, never to return

One of the many boxes of electronic equipment that allowed the Navy P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft to track submarines was a time code generator-decoder.

According to the aircraft flight manual, this was a clock that provided an accurate time signal output (plus or minus 13 seconds in a 24-hour period) to the aircraft’s tape recorders. These tapes stored the many sounds of the ocean, from biologics, waves, surface ships, and submarines transmitted from the hydrophones of the relatively small sonobuoys that we deployed.

I was curious, where did that specification (plus or minus 13 seconds in a 24-hour period) originate?

You see, as a naval crewman, you had to have a firm understanding of each component in the aircraft along with emergency procedures in order to pass your annual exam and flight evaluation.

I asked one of our squadron flight evaluators, Senior Chief Dan Garrett, about this intriguing specification.

He told me it was a throwback to when sailors used chronometers (a portable clock that is accurate enough to be used as a time standard) to determine longitude.

Unfortunately, before an accurate maritime timepiece was available, you could determine your latitude (the location north or south of the Equator), but not your longitude (the imaginary north- south line that is east or west of the prime meridian at Greenwich, England).

To determine your latitude, you used a sextant to measure the angle of the sun to the horizon at its highest point in the sky at 12 noon or the stars, like the North Star (Polaris) at night.

To calculate a ship’s longitude, the sailor sets the ship’s chronometer to Greenwich Mean Time. When the sun is at the highest point in the sky (12 noon), the navigator either subtracts or adds the ship’s time depending on if you’re east or west of the prime meridian to determine your longitude.

A tragedy at sea

Without both latitude and longitude on the vast oceans, you’re not sure where you are at, and this has led to many tragic maritime disasters.

In 1707 Admiral of the Fleet Sir Cloudesley Shovell led his fleet of 21 ships from Gibraltar to Plymouth, England.

You see, before the time of an accurate timepiece, sailors had to rely on dead reckoning to navigate. Dead reckoning is when you let out a line in the water and count the number of knots in the rope that passes through your hands to determine the ship’s speed.

Most of the time, this is an accurate measurement, but ocean currents can drastically alter the correct position of your vessel.

Toward the end of his journey, Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s ships were battered by strong to gale-force westerly winds and a strong northerly flowing current during the night. Four of his vessels, including his flagship HMS Association, slammed into the coastal reefs and rocks of the Scilly Isles, off the most southwestern part of England.

More than 1,300 seamen lost their lives that night, including Sir Cloudesley Shovell.

Afterward, the Longitude Act of 1714 was passed. It offered anyone an enormous sum of money to invent a straightforward way to determine a ship’s longitude while at sea.

English clockmaker John Harrison, after many decades of trial and error, invented a chronometer that keeps accurate time on the rolling and pitching oceans. Harrison was a hero who saved a vast number of seafarers over the centuries.

However, even with a chronometer, if it’s overcast and you can’t see the sun or stars, you could get lost.

Navy squadron runs aground

Navigating the waters along the Central Coast in the dense fog was a nightmare before the adoption of modern navigation equipment.

Without any visual references, you can develop vertigo related to the overwhelming feeling that you’ve lost all sense of direction.

This condition may have been one of the reasons that one the worst peacetime loss of vessels in U.S. Navy history occurred on Sept. 9, 1923, when seven destroyers smashed on the rocks off an isolated headland locally known as Honda Point, north of Point Arguello.

Twenty-three sailors lost their lives that night. Enveloped by a steep bank of fog, the naval squadron was traveling south at 20 knots toward the Santa Barbara Channel. The channel lies between Points Arguello and Conception on the shoreline and San Miguel Island.

Off course, the squadron turned to port prematurely, led by the flagship USS Delphy. The Delphy was a few miles farther north than her navigators thought. The ship scraped the bottom, then heaved heavily as she slammed into the rocky reef.

There was no time for the other vessels immediately following to change course. One destroyer after another piled up on the reef that night — never to sail again.

Meaningful Memorial Day observances are planned throughout the county on Monday to honor the military members who sacrificed everything to preserve our freedom.

One is the “Lost at Sea” memorial at the Cayucos Pier.

In 2001, Pastor Doug Carroll, Joe Eyeraud, Navy Chaplain Bill Houston, Dave Congalton, Bill Benica and Tom Madsen created the Memorial Day service to honor all those lost at sea: military, recreational and commercial.

We simply gather at the base of the pier for a brief service at 3 p.m. and walk together out over the Pacific Ocean, remembering those who never returned.

John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is PG&E’s Diablo Canyon marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Email him at or follow him on Twitter: @PGE_John.
Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune