Steering by the Stars

A couple of years ago, Jay and I gave each other whimsical birthday gifts: he gave me a sextant and I gave him a guitar, both of them instruments which require a lot of time and practice to use. We thought, “We’ll be out sailing with nothing else to do.” Right…except keeping the boat afloat and feeding-clothing-teaching five children! I read a couple of books and went to a seminar, and Jay took some DVD lessons, but beyond that, neither of us made much progress learning to use these gifts.

I have always been captivated by the stars and love all things old-fashioned, so the sextant seemed like a neat way to get redundancy for navigation electronics. But for practical purposes, I will never get the kind of accuracy or precision from the sextant that we will from GPS. On the other hand, if satellite communications get knocked out by something like a solar flare, we won’t be completely without options for navigating.

A few weeks ago, an opportunity arose to take an informal class (more of a home-study course with a tutor), and I set aside any free time I might otherwise have had to work on my navigating skills and learn celestial. At first I had my doubts, but after learning noon sites, the basic method for working out lines of position based on the sun, moon, planets, and stars is pretty much the same. Add some chart work with universal plotting sheets and some running fixes and voila! There you have it! So simple, so graceful…if it weren’t for all the complicated games with tiny numbers, I might even say that it’s easy. Now comes the test—not the paper and pencil test—but the actual day-to-day practice which will make me proficient and not just a beginner. Of course, with all the distractions of home life, it will be awhile before I even finish all the left-over coursework.

What I have come to realize through taking this course is that I really don’t want to be the primary navigator, but that I would like to be more involved in piloting the boat and keeping the log. I don’t think I will really do a noon sight every day to keep my dead-reckoning on track, nor will I use Jupiter to check the boat’s compass. However, after taking a few classes and working out the convoluted problems to try to find a boat’s position using heavenly bodies, I’ve come to see why the practice of navigating by the stars has not died out despite advances in technology. There is something magical about finding my place in this world by things so far out of it, and being able to use a tool that connects me to the seafarers of old.

Regarding our romantic notions about sailing, I guess we’ve gotten more realistic. If we’re relying on Jay to make music, we’ll be limited to songs with two chords, and if we’re relying on me to find our way, we’ll be late and lost!

Note: My two favorite celestial books are by Tom Cunliffe (great explanations and full-color diagrams but not very practical) and David Burch (short on theory but very practical).