Why Celestial Navigation?
Why is it still so popular and why do more and more sailors wish to learn the sextant?
It’s a revival
It’s understanding what you do
It’s beautifully simple and bullet-proof
It’s an important backup
Celestial navigation has definitely become part of the world-wide revival trend. Like the fact that the LP record is back and that many people proudly cary their mechanical watches, sailors wish not only to own a sextant, but to know how it is being used.
Yes, development has gone forward. And yes, you can get your position by simply watching a dot on an electronic chart, even in your smartphone. Music is much simpler downloaded or streamed from the internet and quartz watches are much more accurate than old-fashioned cogwheels spinning around like planets and mechanical springs which swing like a heart beat.
We don’t need outdated methods for information or comfort. It’s much easier and comfortable to travel by plane, car or even power-boat, so why bother with hoisting huge white sheets to utilise the wind moving you slowly and uncomfortably over an uneven ocean? With central heating, who needs a fire place? Why candles or an old fashioned oil lamp, when modern society provides efficient LEDs to provide light.
And, yes, of course, we do travel on land and by air, we use our quartz clocks for the deciding our daily tasks. We all have central heatings not to be cold and electric lights to read or cook and a GPS to show us where we are and need to go.
But one does not exclude the other!
The Emotional Aspect
It has all to do with emotions. Nothing beats the feeling of being slowly blown over oscillating waves of the ocean. Which LED light can compete with the romance of a candle light, an oil lamp or the sound and smell of an open fire place? It’s rooted deep down inside us! It’s been like this for centuries.
Sometimes it just feels good to get away from the hectic, precise and alway omnipresent perfectionism. Sometimes you just don’t want to know everything too exactly.
And: you wish to do it yourself, make it your own and feel the achievement of success. Why else do people paint, when you can take a photo or why do some play an instrument, when there are thousands who play much better than yourself?
It’s the joy of inaccuracy, estimation and understanding.
Do you understand how your smartphone can exactly know where you are, let alone where your spouse is, your handbag or your keys? Can you explain how a quartz watch can count the 32,768,000 times that it swings to and fro – in each second? Do you feel any joy when turning on a switch to get the desired light? Can you follow the physics how come a 78,000 kg heavy Airbus 320 can lift off into the sky? Engineers can explain the maths behind it, but not even they can feel it! Ask me! I’m one of them!
Can you remember the joy when you used coloured pencils and drew your first artwork in Kindergarten as a small kid? Can you remember how you felt when you solved your first calculations using no more than plus and minus and got it right? Or how it felt using no more than a sheet of paper, a pencil and a ruler to draw meaningful lines giving your phantasy freedom to spin off into the blue?
That’s what celestial navigation is all about these days!
These days, and under normal circumstances, celestial navigation has very little to do with the necessity to find your position. (Although it does make sense to have it as a backup system, see below!). In first place, it has to do with feeling the joy to learn something new and fun, feeling the beautifully overwhelming success when you get it right. And to most sailors, it’s even meaningful to learn.
You don’t even need a chart to find your position with celestial navigation. You simply create your own by using a blank piece of paper that becomes your “Plotting Sheet”. You don’t need a calculator, you do the simply addition and subtraction like you did in second grade in school. Plus and Minus is all you need to know. Hold a beautifully hand-crafted mechanical angle measuring device thy call a Sextant in your hands and know that it has looked like this for centuries. And if you wish to go all the way: use a mechanical chronometer for the exact time (but I confess: I use a cheap digital wrist-watch, instead).
The cleverly compiled tables that mathematicians have prepared for us sailors are astonishing. Learning about the PZX-Triangle, you can even understand the background how the smart guys have reached to their Sight Reduction Tables. If you remember the trigonometry from middle school, it’s very similar to grasp and only the fact that we are sailing on a round sphere makes it a little bit more complicated. But never mind, you don’t need to understand it all! At least you get a feel for how they did it!
And you may show respect to the astronomers, who can predict which celestial object in the sky will be positioned where and when!
It’s simply all so beautiful! And you never stop learning!
Owning a sextant is like having the key to getting anywhere in the world with no external help. It’s the ultimate symbol for freedom. And if you haven’t been lucky enough to have inherited a sextant from your seafaring farther, grandfather, uncle or aunt, maybe it’s time for you to invest in a sextant that you then can pass on to your child, grandchild, niece or nephew. It’s your way to be remembered as the sailor you were.
One day, you great-grand children might point at your sextant in their cabinet, saying they got it from their great grand father or great grand mother, who used to be a keen sailor. Maybe they regret that they don’t know how it works, but for sure they would admire its clever mechanism! And maybe they get inspired to learn the sextant just as you do now.
Letting the romantic emotions aside, knowing your way by means of a system that is not relying neither on electrical power nor on a remotely controlled satellite system is not to be neglected. By the contrary! Not even the US Navy fully trust its own GPS system. It could simply be switched off without warning. Either deliberately in case of military intervention (like in the Gulf war, when the GPS system deliberately was programmed to mislead the enemy in the Gulf region!) or unintentionally by a systems breaking down. Such a breakdown could happen by the helped of some eval hackers! Hackers are not to be neglected and are always a threat against any software driven systems these days.
And did you know there exist “GPS-Jammers” that can be bought on the Internet if you wish to disturb the reception of GPS signals? These can easily be placed on drones in order to make GPS signas unusable within the range of such a GPS-Jammer. The weak types you can order for the cigaret lighter in your car so nobody can see your position, is one thing, but how about more powerful GPS-Jammers?
Crossing an Ocean without the knowledge how to find your way without an electronic gaget, can be seen as somewhat careless. At least, this is what the US Government, the MCA (Maritime Coastguard Agency in the UK) and the RYA believes. For safety reasons, one should always be able to fall back to classic navigation. If you can’t see land, celestial navigation is the the way to go, especially on longer passages. The reasons are, amongst others:
- GPS is owned by the US Government and operated by the US Departure of Defence and may be switched off without warning (as has been the case during the Gulf War)
- The risk of hacking the GPS system is considered serious enough that the US Navy is back on the school bench for celestial navigation since Oct 2017 after a 10-year period of blindly believing in (their own) GPS system.
- A lighting strike may completely destroy all electric and electronic devices and give your main compass a non-disclosed deviation (hence teaching the celestial compass check!)
Although GPS has turned the once essential skill of celestial navigation for ocean sailing into a backup system, mastering navigation without power or GPS is still as important as ever.
On the Official U.S. Government information site about GPS they write:
“Like all radio-based services, GPS is subject to interference from both natural and human-made sources. A civilian GPS unit can lose reception in the presence of a device designed for intentional radio jamming. This can also occur during a solar flare. For this reason, the U.S. government strongly encourages all GPS users to maintain backup capabilities for positioning, navigation, and timing.“
If you don’t believe in jammers or misleading GPS signal, have you thought about a lighting strike? A complete power loss and/or loss of your complete navigation system due to a lighting strike is not unlikely!
Even your compass may well get a sudden deviation due to the lightning strike, and therefore a compass check is part of the routines of celestial navigation. Provided that you have an ocean going boat with your steering compass placed in the sun on your steering pedestal and not hidden away somewhere over the companionway…
Irrespectively of all threats, it is an indescribable beauty to monitor your own little boat traveling on our blue planet earth with all the stars and planets in the universe around us. Celestial navigation puts you in context with the universe and the stars above become guides and meaningful friends.
The earth turning around itself and then again around the sun and the moon around the earth…. it all becomes so beautiful and obvious!
Or, to quote David Barrie in his excellent book “Sextant: A Voyage Guided by the Stars and the Men Who Mapped the World’s Oceans“:
“GPS banishes the need to pay attention to our surroundings, and distances us from the natural world; although it tells us precisely where we are, we learn nothing else from it. Indeed unthinking reliance on GPS weakens our capacity to find our way using our senses. By contrast, the practice of celestial navigation extends our skills and deepens our relationship with the universe around us.”