ON readers learn celestial nav from A to Z


Over the last year or so I’ve made two eastbound Atlantic crossings with Ocean Navigator readers as the instructor for the Ocean Navigator School of Seamanship’s Celestial Navigation Seminar at Sea. We sail aboard the largest sailing vessel in the world, the Royal Clipper, a magnificent 440-foot, 5-masted, full-rigged ship. We eat like royalty in a white-tablecloth dining room, and sleep like babies in beautiful staterooms aboard the most comfortable sailing ship imaginable. There’s even a fitness center, swimming pools, a piano bar & lounge, and a library complete with fireplace aboard this ship!

But as we sail across the Atlantic, our purpose is learning every day about how celestial navigation works, including nautical astronomy, terrestrial navigation, and the amazing history of man’s efforts to know where he is sailing on the oceans of the world. During the 16-night 3,000-mile voyage, I teach the students celestial navigation from A to Z. Students bring their own sextants. Ocean Navigator provides all of the plotting sheets and course handouts. We can compare our work with the ship’s navigation plot, and we interact daily with the Captain and officers, enjoying an open-bridge policy.

Our last voyage began April 16th 2006 in Barbados and ended May 7th in Malaga, Spain. That eastbound voyage was particularly satisfying because we sailed 12 out of 16 days. Normally the Northeast Trades would have been nearly on the bow, but because of a large low pressure system to the north of our track, the winds wound up being south and west. Royal Clipper’s square sails took full advantage.

We had just 3 students for our celestial navigation training on that voyage, although, as with the previous crossing, some students were accompanied by family members, all of whom enjoyed the crossing and found lots to do onboard. One evening I gave a talk for all the passengers about celestial bodies and navigation. The small number of students in the seminar allowed time for lots of personal attention during instruction and sextant practice.

We started our studies by recalling that Barbados is a special island when it comes to navigation because it was there that the final proof of Harrison’s chronometer was made. His son, William Harrison, landed in Barbados in 1764 and the timepiece he had aboard had kept accurate time to within 40 seconds, or about 10 miles of longitude. This event was a huge leap forward for ocean navigation.

Then Royal Clipper sailed north and east toward the Azores and we began our celestial navigation studies in earnest. Along the way, we used our Iridium satellite phone to download weather data from OCENS, and weather routing from Locus Weather. We used NavPak Pro software on a laptop connected to a hand held GPS as our digital chart. But each day the students kept their own track of our positions by plotting sun/planet and star LOP’s (lines of position) on a universal plotting sheet.

Another seminar and transatlantic sailing, this one westbound from Lisbon, Portugal to Barbados, is set to depart on October 27, 2006. I’m looking forward to both the voyage and to teaching more navigation students. You can request a 6-page brochure about the course by sending an e-mail to info@sailingshipadventures.com, or by calling Sailing Ship Adventures at 877-882-4395.

Eric Schwelke on 10/04/2006 00:34

The Eastbound trip this April/May 2006 was probably the highlight of my sailing/navigational experience so far. I was one of John’s students on that trip. I’ve had previous hands-on instruction in celestial nav on blue water trips before, but this course made it very clear. We learned a “days work at sea” involves many different aspects to piloting a vessel safely and quickly to your destination. John’s knowledge, experience, and easygoing manner were a big part of it for me. I am now very confident in my celestial nav skills and I am looking forward to applying them on upcoming bluewater trips. Fair Winds.

John Carlisle on 10/04/2006 12:01

Ocean Navigator Reader seeks berth on Marion-Bermuda Race boat Thanks, Eric! It was a real pleasure sailing and learning with you on that Royal Clipper crossing. You truly excelled at your Celestial Nav studies. Next for you, it will be great to get on one of the Marion-Bermuda Race boats. Maybe a reader here can contact us if they have an open berth for next year’s race.

By Ocean Navigator