Navigating without a clock

In Before the Wind: The Memoir of an American Sea Captain 1808-1833, Capt. Charles Tyng describes how he rose from ship’s boy aboard a merchantman to, over the course of a long and successful career, ship’s owner, trading in goods from Europe, Cuba and China.

This is an archetypal American story, for although Tyng came from a privileged Boston background, he was forced to make his own way when it came to his career aboard ship — rising through the hawse pipe and succeeding by dint of skill, luck and circumstance. He was at different times shipwrecked, sick with typhus, and owner of what he believed to be a specimen of a real mermaid, which he displayed at a profit. He saw the opening of the China trade and managed somehow in that harsh world to maintain his sense of humor and humanity, while still making a buck.

This is perhaps the most engaging record of a life that was lived in the days when America was becoming the dominant sea power in the world, and it is a glimpse into the Yankee mindset that played such a strong role in this development.

Of all the escapades that Tyng recalls, none to me was as interesting as the schooner passage that he made as a young man from Havana to Boston. Prior to this passage, Tyng had sailed aboard square-rigged ships to China, and this was the first trip he made as crew aboard a schooner. The ship, Volant, was carrying molasses from Cuba to Boston, part of the shipping route that brought sugar to the United States so that it could be made into rum — the favored libation of the time. Tyng had jumped ship in Havana, and he wanted to get back to Boston, so he signed up with a Capt. Brown, a man Tyng describes as “a good natured man, which was his best qualification, as he was ignorant as one could be to have command of any vessel.” It was on this passage, in December of the year, that Tyng and Volant sailed from Cuba without any watch aboard, so the keeping of time became moot.

As most of us know, it is very difficult to take celestial sights without the help of a clock, and how this schooner managed to find its way safely to Boston is a great little tale. Obviously, getting longitude was out of the question. The skipper depended on dead reckoning based on noon sights. Noon sights are great for latitude, but given that the maximum altitude of the sun is only for a short period of time each day, one wonders how many times the sun was hidden by the clouds. Perhaps the skipper had made the passage so many times, he could have accomplished it just using dead reckoning without taking any sights at all. Perhaps on this passage he was just lucky, for we all know how important luck is — not just at sea but in every aspect of life.

Let’s hear what Tyng has to say of this passage of Volant with a crew of seven: “I had never been in a schooner before. It was new and amusing to me to see the management. The crew and cook slept down in the small hold called the steerage, two berths were for the four sailors, so that when one watch turned out, the others turned in, and the watch in the morning from four to eight were nearly smothered by the smoke which filled the steerage when the cook made the fire.

“There was no time piece on board, neither the Capt. or mate had a watch, and it was amusing sometimes to see how they managed about finding the time for the watch on deck to begin or to end.

“We had a very long passage as the captain was not much of a navigator. Knew but little of longitude, and trusted wholly to his quadrant for the latitude. We sailed northeast until we got to the latitude of Boston and then steered west … The captain did not know the exact position of the vessel any day after we left Havana.”

For the sake of this navigation problem, we will make a few assumptions. We will assume that the captain had a Nautical Almanac and that he knew how to use it. We will also assume that he knew his variation so that he could steer a true course. By doing this problem we can see that, despite not having a clock, the captain could determine the time, at least of noon.

Here is what we know: The DR position of Volant is 33° N by 62° W. Volant is steering a compass course of 352°. Deviation on this heading is 006° west. Variation is 016° west.

A. What is the True course?

Now we want to take a noon sight. It is Dec. 20, and we are using the 2003 Nautical Almanac. Our Height of Eye is 15 feet, the Index Error on the quadrant is 6′ off. We are taking a lower-limb sight of the sun. The Hs is 33° 17′

B: What is the Ho?

C: What is the time of LAN in GMT?

D: What is the latitude?

By Ocean Navigator