by Random Keystone

The art of navigation and the act of piloting are to me far and away the most fascinating aspects of boating. When I examine a cruising sailboat the “nav station” is one of the first points of the design I give careful study. After all, a sizable amount of time will and should be spent there. A lifetime of training and experience might not qualify a sailor as an expert in all aspects of the fine craft of seamanship and so a person tends to specialize somewhat over time. Since I’m enthralled by astronomy, navigation seems the ideal choice for me.

The Navy trained me as a Quartermaster when I was yet a young man. A romantic photograph of a stalwart sailor operating a sextant stole my very soul. To me what he was doing seemed almost magical and I desired nothing more than to share in his wizardry. However, those who strive to learn to navigate through conventional methods must be prepared to be somewhat overwhelmed by what at first seems to be a maze of mathematical complexities. Even after many years of study I still struggle to remember and comprehend the numerous calculations involved.

It should come as no surprise that navigators and their most excellent instruments fill us with a sense of mystical awe. The skills they possess and the tools of their trade are the culmination of thousands of years of development. Compass, chronometer and sextant. With these and the proper skills a person may go anywhere in the world and never be lost. And yet, people managed to travel far and wide on land and sea with nothing more than a working knowledge but one thing: the stars.

May of the instruments of conventional navigation find their origins in ancient times. Even the highly regarded and superbly effective modern global positioning system is based on mathematical principles proven out by the greak philosophers of over four thousand years past. The greaks were certainly not alone in making discoveries however, for all over the world at any given time and place people were learning to use the heavens as their guide.

In my studies of instruments for navigation from the ancient to the modern I have been led down a great many avenues of discovery. Mathematics, astronomy, cosmology, meteorology, mechanics, aeronautical engineering and physics just to name a few. But in all this I have not forgotten that these pillars of science have their origins in the arcane. Astrology and alchemy were the ancestors of the modern disciplines and so it is with navigation.

In ages past, precious few were granted the opportunity to train as pilots. The training was long, arduous and expensive. Such skills were the property of the fortunate and the elite alone. In addition the instruments used were rare and valuable. Only the best craftsman could produce them. Some of the devices I have encountered in my research are worthy of articles in their own right. As an example I give you the “Antikythera Machine” a tool of navigation resembling watch parts inside a puzzle box used by the greeks about four thousand years ago. One might find it easier to understand the sextant if they study the sundial, quadrant and backstaff. Certain instruments of navigation over the ages fill me with wonder. Consider the “giblah” of the Arabians or the “cruciform sundial” of the Christian pilgrims. Not to mention the various types of astrolabes used throughout the ages. Eventually, perpetual calendars, tide tables, latitude tables, compass, equatorial dial, etc. were fitted together into an integrated unit which folded together and resembled a pocket watch. Many of these devices were exquisite in detail and made of gold.

To the common person or sailor, often a superstitious lot, such an object must have surely presented as some sort of magical amulet filled with mystical powers and properties. Perhaps this is how some related myths and legends have come to pass. Yet I am sure that some of them, not un-like myself, were willing to pursue the mystery and learn its secrets. In due time I will master piloting and bear my own talisman about my person. Many claim that celestial is now only an auxillary to GPS. I claim that just the reverse is true. In any event, a wise pilot would not rely on a technology that they could not replace with their own skill. 
Celestial, practical or GPS. One must not forget that in the historical context any given style of navigation contains it’s own special mystique. The poetry and magic of celestial navigation is first and best, know it and be free.

Random Keystone is a freelance writer from Mound, MN.