Pequod searches for the white whale

Jan/Feb 2002

In November 1851, the face of American literature changed forever with the publication of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Unfortunately for Melville, who had previously garnered positive critical reviews for Omoo and Typee, Moby Dick was poorly received by the critics. It was referred to by one contemporary critic as “so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature.”

Image Credit: Illustrations by Rockwell Kent/Moby Dick, Modern Library, 1930

Melville had begun his career as a sailor, shipping out as a young man. From his experiences at age 27 came his first book, Typee, a narrative describing four wild months he spent in the Marquesas. In the next four years, he wrote Omoo, Redburn, Mardi and White Jacket, all of which were well received.

The story of Moby Dick finds Melville at the top of his game, though it took many years for the public to recognize just how brilliant a book it is. Moby Dick, as any reader who has struggled with its text knows, is far more than just a book about whale hunting. Its style was well in advance of its times, and it presaged the writing style that would become more famous with the works of James Joyce and other Modernist writers. It wasn’t until the 1920s that Moby Dick was rediscovered and hailed as a masterpiece.

After its publication, when Melville was only 33 years old, his career fell into obscurity, though he continued writing. So far had he fallen from the spotlight that, upon his death 35 years later, the obituary in the New York Press said “Probably if the truth were known, even his own generation has long thought him dead, so quiet have been the later years of his life.”

For those readers not familiar with Moby Dick, I will quote from a chapter called “The Quadrant,” in order to make the connection between this literary work and our own pursuit of celestial navigation. In this chapter, Capt. Ahab prepares to take a noon sight. I’m sure any of the readers who have taken this sight will appreciate this passage:

“It was hard upon high noon; and Ahab, seated in the bows of his high-hoisted boat, was about taking his wonted daily observation of the sun to determine his latitude.

“Now, in that Japanese sea, the days in summer are as freshets of effulgences. That unblinkingly vivid Japanese sun seems the blazing focus of the glassy ocean’s immeasurable burning-glass. The sky looks lacquered; clouds there are none; the horizon floats; and this nakedness of unrelieved radiance is as the insufferable splendors of God’s throne. Well that Ahab’s quadrant was furnished with colored glasses, through which to take sight of that solar fire. So, swinging his seated form to the roll of the ship, and with his astrological-looking instrument placed to his eye, he remained in that posture for some moments to catch the precise instant when the sun should gain its precise meridian €¦ At length the desired observation was taken; and with his pencil upon his ivory leg, Ahab soon calculated what his latitude must be at that precise instant.”

So let’s join Ahab, Starbuck and the crew in search of the white whale. The height of eye is 20 feet and the index error is two minutes off the arc. We will do two noon sights based on the 2001 Nautical Almanac. Have fun, and try reading Melville again.

Part One: On July 10, Pequod is at a DR position of 15 N, 132 30′ E.

A. What time is LAN in GMT?

B. What time is local time of Meridian Passage?

C. Given an Hs of 82 32.4′, what is the latitude of Pequod?

Part Two: Pequod sails in a southeasterly direction, steering 120 T and making 5.25 knots.

A. How far has the ship traveled in 24 hours?

B. What is the position of Pequod the next day at noon?

C. What time is LAN from new DR, both LMT and GMT?

D. What is latitude if Hs is 81 36.0′?  

By Ocean Navigator