Winning celestial navigator recaps

To the editor: Interesting Gulf Stream features and a variety of wind conditions made the 2005 Marion to Bermuda Cruising Yacht Race a tactical and strategic navigation challenge. I served as navigator on Restive, a 45-foot aluminum yawl designed by Nils Helleberg of Alden and custom-built in 1985 by Paul Luke – the last boat built under Luke’s personal supervision. George Denny, skipper and owner, prefers traditional lines, and Restive’s profile shows off her long overhangs and distinctive sheer – a very pretty yacht. Other crew were Terry Moulton (watch captain), Denny’s son Amos (15 years old, second Bermuda Race), my daughter Charlotte Taylor (sixth race), and Thomas Richardson and Matt Semler (both experienced sailors but first-time Bermuda racers).

We had elected to use celestial navigation for the race and had signed up for pre-race Gulf Stream analysis and weather forecasting from Jenifer Clark and Commanders’ Weather. Clark’s charts showed a developing meander heading southeast more or less along the track to Bermuda, and a large, warm eddy north of the stream with a 2- to 3-knot adverse current for anyone trying to sail directly down the rhumb line. Immediately south of the stream lurked both a warm and a cold eddy, with flows converging near the rhumb line. There also were possible weaker eddies just north of Bermuda.

Restive’s instruments are basic: speed through the water, apparent and true wind, and depth. Water temperature readings are accomplished via bucket and pool thermometer. We did have a laptop this year, and Denny had subscribed to SkyMate for weather downloads.

Winds were forecast to be light to medium southwest at the start, during the beat out of Buzzards Bay, shifting to ENE through the stream and back to light SSW to the finish.

We discussed two possible routes. One took us east after the start, to pick up the favorable side of the large eddy north of the Gulf Stream, then straight across the stream and into the favorable current from the warm eddy below it. We concluded this was a flyer, possibly a big winner, but likely troublesome. Our alternative was to head west to dodge adverse current from the first warm eddy, enter the stream near the top of the meander and exit at a point that would set us up to bisect the cold eddy below the stream, avoiding the bad flow but not adding distance by going far enough west to get a boost. We reasoned this would allow us to emerge from the eddy in position to take advantage of SSW to SW breezes near the finish.

Restive likes breeze, and on race day the weather gods complied. We started at 1315 and beat out of Buzzards Bay under sunny skies in a nifty 20-knot southwesterly, so nifty that as we turned the corner at Sow and Pigs, the brand-new number-one genoa blew out. But our plan had been to change to a high-clewed jib-top and staysail double-head rig as soon as we were off the wind a bit.

By 2100 we turned off the GPS (allowed for the celestial class within 20 miles of the coast) and at 0900 the next day, June 18, I took my first Sun sight. By then the wind had dropped to very light SSW, and for the next 20 hours we were in light to zero wind. It gradually clocked to the northeast and built, and our Gulf Stream crossing was in 20 to 35 knots NE blowing across the path of the meander with sharp, ragged seas that were not as bad as they could have been with wind against the current.

After the stream and as we cut through the cold eddy, the wind moved around to the south, lightened, but eventually came up SSW at a steady 15 knots to carry us all the way in, for several of the most enjoyable days I’ve spent on the water.

This passage was my second using celestial navigation (the first was Marion-Bermuda 1997). My preference is to work the sights by hand using the Nautical Almanac and tables, checking results occasionally using celestial navigation software on our laptop.

I generally took five or six Sun sights a day, plus whatever I could find during twilight. Star identification is not my forte – I spent several minutes early in the race trying to bring our masthead light down to the horizon – but we had a good moon most nights, and I was able to find Altair, Spica and Vega, and also used Jupiter and Venus.

On our last night out, Tuesday, June 21, after successfully shooting Vega, Jupiter and Venus for a fix, and then dead reckoning to well within the 50-mile GPS limit from Bermuda, we turned on the electronics to find out we were five miles ahead of the DR position with 30 miles to go. The wind held, and we finished Wednesday at 0751 EDT. It turned out that despite a one-hour penalty for entering the starting box prematurely (read the sailing instructions very carefully), we won our class by five minutes over the previous celestial winner, Cordelia, and were third in fleet out of 75 boats.

-Will Taylor is an experienced sailor and has worked at such magazines as Time and Inc.

By Ocean Navigator