Relay 04.26.12

Finding My Way On a Watery Sphere

    Earlier this month I was invited to travel from New London to New Orleans aboard the Coast Guard’s training ship Eagle. A story appears elsewhere in this issue about Eagle under sail.
    I first joined the ship in 1994 as a journalist, crossed the Atlantic, wrote a story for Smithsonian magazine, and joined her again in Hamburg, Germany, in 1996 on the anniversary of her 1936 launch from the Blohm & Voss shipyard. She was christened Horst Wessel in the presence of none other than Adolf Hitler.
    He was the product of a paranoid, hateful mind. She was born of a proud shipbuilding tradition. She escaped World War II. Fortunately, he did not. I wrote about her first nine years as Horst Wessel, and her next 56 years as Eagle, in a book titled “The Barque of Saviors.” Eagle turns 76 this year.
    I’ve spent a lot of time on the ship and learned a great deal, but I had never tackled celestial navigation until now. Fortunately, Eagle is supplied with an ample number of sextants, navigational almanacs, and a bible known as Bowdich, a tome written by Thomas Edward Bowdich, a boy genius born in Bristol, England, in 1791.
    Also on board were a number of people willing to pound into a mathematically challenged mind the concepts, the first being that Ptolemy was right all along, the earth is the center of the universe with the sun and all the other celestial bodies revolving around us.
    This is a necessary mind-set if one is to understand the geometry of celestial navigation — quite simple once you see it. Computing LAN, or local apparent noon, was not difficult. More challenging was using the sextant to fix one’s position using stars when they first become visible at the time of day known as civil twilight (great title for a murder mystery), that is, when the sun is just three degrees below the horizon.
    Getting the angle from the sextant is relatively easy, but identifying the stars and doing the computations using corrections printed in the navigational almanac gets a bit dense.
    So there I was, reveling in my new knowledge aboard a wind-driven vessel, finding my place on our watery sphere using the sun and stars, no stinking GPS, no man-made satellites — aaargh. At the same time I was forced to admit I was still flummoxed by the jungle of calculations.
    One of my volunteer instructors was a young merchant seaman not long out of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy for whom navigation of all sorts had become second nature.
    Seeing I was having difficulty with the computations, Phil blurted, “But you don’t have to do all that. There’s an app called Starfinder. You just point your iPhone to the sky and it identifies the stars and planets, then you take your angle with the sextant and plug the numbers into a Web site that does the calculations for you.”
    What? An app? Is there no end to it? Does Apple have no sense of propriety? Why not just find my position on a hand-held electronic global positioning gizmo and the hell with the sextant? I could feel the great navigators — Bowdich, James Cook, William Bligh — sniggering. What happens when an asteroid wipes out the man-made satellites that GPS and Starfinder depend on, they ask?
    In my case I’d be up that creek without a paddle, so I have vowed to either learn it the old-fashioned way or sail well within sight of land.

    Russell Drumm is a senior writer at The Star.