Sextant sight practice draws curious responses

Nov/Dec 2001

To the editor: Your recent piece by Andrew Howe, “Celestial from the beach” (Issue 116 Sept./Oct. 2001), particularly resonated. For years, I’ve been lugging my 50-year-old Heath bell sextant to Orleans on Cape Cod, shooting sun and moon, occasionally the stars, from Skaket and Nauset beaches. I use the charted latitude for one leg of the standard cos. “t” time-sight formula. My goal, of course, is to see how close my sights and computations will take me to the charted longitude. I generally work within 1 to 3 minutes’ accuracy, with luck working to tenths. At Skaket, with the low-tide outrun exposing sand for up to a mile, height of eye is a problem.

People who know what a sextant is will come up to me and ask, “Are you lost?” Once, an elderly woman who obviously did not know what a sextant is, walked over to inquire: “Excuse me, can you tell me what kind of camera that is?”

At home, in the depths of western New York, I use a large Teflon-coated frying pan filled with water for an artificial horizon. The time of sight must of course be windless. If I do get a ripple, I wait for it to pass. The moon gives me an exceedingly crisp pair of edges, and the accuracy is astonishing. With my low-powered scope, stars are impossible. The sun, yes, but even with shades, the glare is bothersome.

A suggestion for your celestial nav courses – possibly you’ve tried it: A few years ago on a trans-Atlantic run, I practiced timing the instant of upper-limb sunset with a stopwatch, no sextant. With Nautical Almanac corrections, the observed altitude was negative, but usable. Latitude was generally within 10 minutes of the GPS reading. It was fun and instructive.

Alan Littell, a long-term contributor to Ocean Navigator, is a self-syndicated travel journalist. He lives in Alfred, N.Y., and Athens, Greece.  

By Ocean Navigator