I was going through security at the Ft. Lauderdale airport, and it was no surprise when the pulled me out of line. "Bag check!" yelled the agent behind the x-ray machine. They whisked me away behind the counter, sans flip-flops. A gloved TSA worker curiously examined the varnished wooden box I'd been carrying. Apparently he had never seen a sextant.
Once convinced that I wasn't a terrorist but merely a boat captain, he gave back my flip-flops and my treasured sextant, and I was on my way. I was en route to St. Thomas to deliver a new Fountaine Pajot Salina 48 catamaran back home to Annapolis, and the voyage would count as the qualifying passage towards my Yachtmaster Oceans endorsement.
We sailed the morning after I arrived, three others and myself. It was a blustery, rainy day and we only made it as far as Lindberg's Cove on the south side of St. Thomas, electing to wait out the weather. Besides, it was a Friday (the 13th, no less), so I was perfectly content not to tempt the gods on Day One.
The weather forecast for the first 48 hours of our trip called for near gale-force winds, and from the NE, with 10-14 foot seas, not exactly ideal, especially on a cat (and a new one at that). Instead of romping headlong into the fresh nor'easter, we elected to sail south and west, the long way round Puerto Rico, and follow along the eastern edge of the Bahamas, keeping well-clear of the islands, yet giving us an outlet if it got particularly nasty.
Sweetest Thing was a rocketship off the wind, and in the lee of P.R. we notched 16 knots in the puffs, while the boat's proud owner stood at the helm, a ridiculous grin plastered on his face. We power-reached along the south coast in record time, rounding Cabo Rojo and entering the Mona Passage before midnight. Once clear of land, I got out my sextant and we went back in time.
In his book, Celestial Navigation in a Nutshell, Hewitt Schlereth sums up how most people feel about celestial: "From just about the first moment you set foot on a boat, you heard two things talked of in hushed tones, Cape Horn and celestial navigation." Celestial has always seemed to me a pastime of only the great sailors, the world-voyagers like Moitessier and Hal Roth. In their books, they speak of it with reverence, yet never seem to give away it's secrets. Moitessier, in fact, shipwrecked two of his beloved boats before finally realizing he seriously needed to learn this magic, yet when he finally mastered the art, to him it became "child's play."
Voyaging sailors often talk of the "noon-site," and daily runs are typically recorded by measuring the distance between these sights, thereby giving a nice round 24-hour mileage mark. While the noonsite is incredibly useful (it can give you your latitude with minimal calculations), in my mind, it's time consuming and redundant. Once you master celestial, standing around waiting for the sun to reach it's apex in the sky while tediously measuring it's altitude every minute or so seems awfully boring. I prefer to simply take a morning sight and a sight sometime around noon. Reducing the sights is less magic and more rote memorization, and once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature, and can be done in a matter of a few minutes. By advancing the morning sight along your DR, you get a nice neat fix at noon, longitude included, something the noonsite cannot give you with a realistic degree of accuracy.
As we sailed northwest in hopes of catching a ride on the Gulf Stream near Savannah, the wind eased and the weather was perfect. Once clear of the Abacos, we hoisted the big genneker and comfortably reached along on a flat sea.
"Give me a ship and a star to steer her by." Sounds nice and romantic. In reality, navigating by the stars doesn't even occur at night. Which is why I found myself up at sunrise and sunset every day, regardless of my watch, sextant in hand, waiting for the first rays of dawn or the last glow of daylight to illuminate the horizon enough to give me a clear sight. In the evening, Venus shown incredibly brilliant on the western horizon just after sunset, and every night I'd log her altitude and plot a line of position. On clear nights, I crossed Venus with Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, and Rigel, giving a nice, neat three-star fix, the most accurate way to navigate with a sextant.
After 5 days, the fixes on the chart arced an even curve towards Hatteras. The weather was so nice that we kept sailing on a beam reach, and never did catch the Gulf Stream until Hatteras. The notorious Cape did not live up to it's nasty reputation; instead, the wind died completely and we motored the last few hundred miles in thick fog. My last sight was a line of position that put us about 25 miles east of the Cape, and was the last time we'd see the sun for the rest of the trip.
Returning to the Chesapeake by sailboat, and after 1800 miles at sea, is something I was very much looking forward to. It was unfortunate that we didn't actually see our return - we navigated through the Bay Bridge-Tunnel by GPS, giving security calls on the VHF every 5 minutes to warn the shipping traffic. The weather turned sour that night, and we made the trip up the Bay in rain, headwinds and fog, dodging frequent shipping traffic and bracing for the cold. Despite the terribly conditions, it was immensely satisfying to plot our position on the chart as we passed the familiar landmarks coming up the Bay.
We motored past Thomas Point early the next morning, barely visible from only a few miles away due to the weather. It was cold and dreary at the helm, but nice to be so close to home. My hands were numb by the time the last dockline was secured, but I was satisfied. We'd completed an 1800-mile passage in 11 days, with a short stop in Marsh Harbor, and I'd navigated the old-fashioned way. There is something special about finding your position on a chart after patiently waiting for the sun to burst through the clouds, something romantic about searching the night sky to identify the stars before the coming dawn fades them from view. After learning to navigate electronically, this departure from the chartplotter and into the real-world was an extremely satisfying feeling. Schlereth again puts it best; "Why learn celestial navigation? Because it will satisfy your soul."