Sun and the Stars

A 17th century astrolabe from the Museo Galileo

A 17th century astrolabe from the Museo Galileo

It is difficult to imagine that getting from Point A to Point B was ever any more difficult than pushing a “Go To” button, but maritime historian Randy McDonald gave an excellent lecture on Ancient Navigational Techniques in Key West this week reminding us that it wasn’t always so easy finding our way at sea.

Randy is a craftsman as well as a historian and he has replicated instruments used by ancient mariners thousands of years ago. Included in his collection are 14th century cross staffs, latitude hooks, astrolabes, quadrants, and a remarkable Polynesian stick chart.

Maritime navigators have always made due with whatever materials were available to them and with ingenuity they navigated safely across thousands of miles of ocean. Singlehanded sailor Steve Callahan spent 76 days adrift in an inflatable raft after his small sloop sank near the Canary Islands in 1981. He found his way to safety in Barbados by measuring the angle of the sun and stars using three pencils bound into a triangle.

My 1981 singlehanded transatlantic crossing in the 23-foot sloop Betelgeuse was made just before the era of GPS became prevalent among offshore sailors. I had no electronics. I used a sextant, passed down from my father, for the celestial navigation from Florida to Portugal.

The voyage of Flying Fish, scheduled to begin next year, will be different. The navigation station on the new IP460 will have an array of computers, flat screens, radios, and electronics. Prudent sailors, however, think about worst-case scenarios and if all those fancy electronics go blank… I’ll always have Dad’s sextant to help me find my way.

I may choose to use the sextant anyway, just to be a little closer to the sun and the stars.

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