Marion Bermuda skipper talks celestial navigation

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Skipper Ron Wisner, of Marion, Mass, sets sail today for Bermuda in the 48-year-old ship Hotspur II to compete in the Marion Bermuda race for the fourth time, racing in the class of celestial navigators.

The art of celestial navigation developed over centuries. Ron is not continuing the tradition out of nostalgia or for historical interest, for him it is an essential tool for mariners the world over, for safety reasons and as a practice of good seamanship.

ON: What is the Marion Bermuda all about?

RW: The Marion Bermuda is a smaller race then the Newport race. It’s more intimate and many sailors, if not most, know each other. The challenges are that it’s a mix of boats, many cruisers, some fast as well, and so every boat has its own unique challenges in order to do well in the race.

One of the reasons that I have promoted celestial navigation is that this is almost the exact opposite of what has become of the America’s cup, which is very high tech cutting edge type of sailing,

This is about traditional sailing using traditional skills, which is something that anybody who wants to cruise across an ocean or around the world or local islands needs to know. These are the skills they need to have and to perfect. That’s really I think the values that are being promoted here. This tends to be a family race we even have a category of families members on a boat.

ON: Is celestial navigation on the rise?

RW: We had six boats [using celestial navigation] in 2013, fourteen in 2015. And we had had thirteen this year but a few boats dropped out, and some of those were celestial navigators. Overall it’s definitely a growing trend. We’ve put a lot of effort into this to promote it.

ON: You’re involved with teaching CN?

 RW: I do some seminars at our [Marion] local yacht club. In the last Safety at Sea [seminar] I did a presentation on survival navigation. I taught at New York Yacht Club this winter. The problem with GPS is that in the old days navigation skills were accompanied with some sort of commensurate seamanship skills necessary to go offshore. GPS short-circuits that process so that people can navigate offshore when they haven’t learned the requisite skills of seamanship. It gives them a false sense of security like when you’re carrying a cellphone in your pocket and you can look things up instantly, and you get a false sense of how smart you are.

Celestial navigation is a heritage that took many centuries to acquire and pass down and that it is still a highly valid back up skill. It is a redundancy to electronic navigation equipment just as having extra sails is necessary. Anytime when you go offshore, redundancy is key, and that includes navigation. There is no back up to electronic navigation except celestial.

That’s one of the things about the Marion race. We’re the only ones who have a celestial navigation class, that’s because this is a cruisers race that emphasis traditional seamanship skills.

Just remember that you could hardly talk to a cruiser who does not know how to do celestial navigation. And many of the certifications even now for merchant marines and yacht masters, every one of them require it as a basic skill. The fact that the navy briefly abandoned it is abhorrent, which they corrected later because there were real vulnerabilities. A computer system will show your position within meters. It hardly means anything if it suddenly shuts down.

ON: Will you take backups onboard with you?

RW: Lets look at it the other way. The real value of GPS is for coastal navigation. Rocks, reefs what-have-you. That’s where GPS is hardly replaceable. In the old days when you were making landfall in foul weather, you stayed out to sea until you could see things. I wouldn’t say that the GPS is a backup, it serves a difference purpose.

To answer your question directly, sure, of course I have GPS on board. Everything gets turned off on our boat.

ON: Who are you sailing with? Family?

RW: No family, virtually all of them are friends with whom I’ve sailed before. One of them has been offshore with me before.

ON: What’s your history with sailing?

RW: I’ve been sailing all my life. I learned to sail before I learned to ride a bike. I learned to sail from my family and grandparents, and my mother.

ON: Any final thoughts?

RW: I do think that [celestial navigation] it is an important skill and the fact that the safety at sea seminars included a short segment on survival emergency navigation sort of says it all, which is if the safety at sea seminars are suppose to prepare sailors for emergency’s offshore, that it certainly makes obvious sense to me that one of those emergency’s is losing your electronic gear and that is exactly why the navy brought it back and why sailors around the world will continue to learn the skill.

Its not that hard, really, it’s basically arithmetic. The trig tables are already solved for you. Understanding the concept so that you can get through the table without getting lost, that’s not hard to learn. When you’re on a long a long passage there’s not much else to do but work sights. It’s like Sudoku.

ON: What are you working on? (Ron has been working on the ship throughout our conversation, talking to me on speakerphone. Gentle hammering sounds in the background).

RW: I’m replacing the stops on my drawers. When we’re on a strong starboard tack sometimes the drawers fly out of their holes. My boats 48 years old and so the lip that holds the drawers in place has been worn down, so I’m replacing it with hardwood so they can’t fly out anymore. Part of seamanship is having a well-prepared boat.

The last thing I’ll say is that it looks like an incredibly foul gulf stream this year and I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of boats go far west. Bear in mind that they’re not lost, they’re doing it on purpose.





By Ocean Navigator