The biennial Marion-Bermuda Cruising Yacht Race held this past June produced a winner who relied on nothing more than the sun to reach the finish line. Martin Jacobson and the crew of the Swan 44 Crescendo were racing in the celestial navigation division yet achieved a first-to-finish win.
All the participating yachts were presented with difficult choices as a series of low pressure systems promised and delivered one of the toughest races in the over 30-year history of the event. Of the 48 boats that started the race, just 27 yachts crossed the finish line in Bermuda. Some turned back soon after the start while others opted to quit racing and motor part of the 645-nm course.
Jacobson, who home ports his Swan 44 in Newport, R.I., and his daughter Caroline Honorowski of New York City were keen to race in the celestial navigation division of this event. They took an Ocean Navigator celestial navigation course in Yarmouth, Maine, this past winter. Jacobson also recruited friend and Australian sailor Jeremy Whitty to help navigate. Whitty, who is a veteran of a number of Sydney-Hobart and Fastnet races is by profession a commercial airline pilot for Qantas Airlines. As a matter of course, he knew the basics of celestial navigation and served as Jacobson’s co-navigator. For both men, however, this was the first time they had ever done an ocean race using celestial navigation.
“For us, the most challenging part of the race in celestial navigation was the constant cloud cover combined with the tumultuous sea state conditions which made it difficult not only to see the sun, but then to get an accurate reading on the sextant,” Jacobson said. “The course offered by Ocean Navigator on celestial navigation was essential as a foundation for us. I believe it is necessary to combine this classroom training with hours of sextant use, the more adverse the conditions the better. I found that dexterity with the sextant increases very rapidly with practice on the water. For Jeremy, this was a case of brushing up on old skills gained as an aircraft pilot, and there is nothing better than a good mentor like him out at sea.”
With the boat reacting to conditions, getting a “good” reading on the sextant was challenging. Because of the weather, they were only able to take sun sights, and then only occasionally. They did not see the stars or the moon at any point during the race. As a result, the added comfort gained from shooting different celestial bodies such as the moon and stars was missing. This did make the job of navigation far more difficult and placed greater reliance on dead reckoning.
“With the nearly impossible conditions for celestial navigation south of the Gulf Stream we had to rely more heavily on dead reckoning and judgment about the effects of the Gulf Stream current on the boat’s course. In the end we made some manual adjustments to the dead reckoning position we had on the plotting chart and got a fairly good sight about 50 nautical miles out of Bermuda,” Jacobson said.
When Jacobson finally reached the 50-mile mark and turned on the GPS (as allowed by the rules), “we were delighted to find ourselves accurate to within about seven to 11 nautical miles of Bermuda,” he said.
What the team did not realize until they crossed the finish line in Bermuda hours later was that they were also the first to finish the race. Crescendo ended up earning the honor of being first overall and first in class for the entire event.
The crew agreed that one of the key aspects in gaining confidence in their location was accomplished by having Jacobson and Whitty take independent sextant shots and compare results.
“Taking independent sextant shots in difficult conditions and getting results that complemented each other meant that we were getting acceptable navigational information. It also made it easy to identify the shots that were outside an acceptable range,” noted Whitty. “When recording the results either Marty or I would make the comment whether we thought it was good, fair or a poor shot. When we had a problem with our distance run on the dead reckoning log we had the confidence to say that the log was incorrect and the celestial fix was good.”
While Honorowski had also taken the Ocean Navigator course, she did not have the opportunity to actually navigate during this race. However, much of the appeal for her during the race was the fact that they were entirely dependent on their own judgment and skills to get to Bermuda.
“For us, the celestial navigation aspect of the race was the most fulfilling,” she said. “Although at times we had no real idea where we were, we never lost confidence. We are all in awe of the navigational skills the mariners of old used and we take pride in our own ability, too.”