For the celestial navigator there can be nothing more frustrating than attempting to secure a place in which to take a sextant sight when beating to windward in a sloppy sea. Unless you are with a crew of sympathetic sailors, most will scoff at your efforts to navigate using celestial, and will do nothing to offer assistance or empathy. For those so-called sailors, spending time navigating with anything but a GPS is a total waste of time. If one of them is the skipper, or owner of the boat, don’t expect to be viewed as anything but a relic. And don’t expect that the boat will be slowed down, even for a moment, to make it easier to take a sight.
As those of us still wedded to the process of celestial know, one of the great challenges in taking a good celestial observation is finding a secure spot on the boat that is dry and also safe enough, so that especially in rough seas, you won’t be tossed overboard. Not always an easy challenge to overcome. On calm days it is no great feat standing in the cockpit, or wedged into the standing rigging, taking a shot of the sun at noon. On smaller boats one can stand on the main companionway and close the hatch a bit, creating a jack-in-the-box tableau, where you as navigator, are protected from all the elements.
The problems become exacerbated in big seas or when the vessel is pounding to windward. Spray is flying all over the place, and staying safe enough to take sights (and keep the sextant dry) does seem a bit more disconcerting. The solution to this is to slow down the boat for the time necessary to take the sights. This is not my idea, but one I learned when I was a well-intentioned, but inept, sailing crew working yacht deliveries. One captain I sailed with was Jack Showers, whom I have written about before. In those days — here I’m speaking of the late 1970s — it was routine to make long-distance ocean passages using celestial navigation. Satellite navigation systems were too expensive and GPS wasn’t even thought of. Although a young man, Showers was an ace navigator who always traveled with a Plath sextant. The box that held that tool was treated as if it held the family jewels. It was the means that Showers and countless other mariners found their way across the oceans. Showers was also on the cutting edge and was the first captain I knew who bought and used the early version of the Tamaya celestial calculator — a not inexpensive item when it was first released to the public. (The Tamaya is still available at Celestaire for about $1,199.00).
Showers was a very deliberate man. He never rushed, never got excited, and always liked to make things as comfortable for himself as possible. That included the taking of celestial sights. If the boat was going too fast, or he thought it was, he would slow down to make his sight taking easier. He would instruct me to take the wheel and steer the given course. Then he would stand by and trim the main. When he was ready, he would instruct me to turn to windward as if I was tacking. The jib would luff then go off on the other tack while the main sail would keep the boat pointing up. The rudder was over all the way. Sometimes he would have to adjust the mainsail so that the boat would feather back up into the wind. What we had then was the headsail backed and the mainsail trimmed. The wheel would be lashed over to windward so that all the forces affecting the forward progress of the boat would be balancing each other. Kind of like a temporary heaving-to. In this case all Showers wanted to do was create as stable a platform as possible in which to take his sights.
This gave Showers the time he needed to get his sextant at the ready and to allow the boat to lay almost ahull so that all motion was suspended and it was much easier to take celestial sights. This is an almost perfect way to take shots and it takes very little time.
About the author:
Contributing Editor David Berson writes the Nav Problem page in every issue of Ocean Navigator. He is also the owner and operator of Glory, an electrically powered excursion boat, in Greenport, N.Y.