Jack London’s account of his long trans-Pacific cruise in his yacht the Snark, includes some very entertaining and perceptive reflections on the art of celestial navigation.
London and his friend, Roscoe, sailed from San Francisco in 1908 – heading first for Honolulu – without yet knowing how to use a sextant. So they simply taught themselves.
Roscoe was the first to try his hand:
‘…when we got out to sea and he began to practise the holy rite, while I looked on admiringly, a change, subtle and distinctive, marked his bearing. When he shot the sun at noon, the glow of achievement wrapped him in lambent flame. When he went below, figured out his observation, and then…announced our latitude and longitude, there was an authoritative ring in his voice that was new to all of us. But that was not the worst of it. He became filled with incommunicable information.
‘By an understandable and forgivable confusion of values, plus a loss of orientation, he felt weighted by responsibility, and experienced the possession of power that was like unto a god…The act of finding himself on the face of the waters became a rite, and he felt himself a superior being to the rest of us who knew not this rite and were dependent on him for being shepherded across the heaving and limitless waste, the briny highroad that connects the continents and whereon are no milestones. So, with the sextant he made obeisance to the sun-god…’
At first London deferred to Roscoe, but quite soon he rebelled. Roscoe, he reflected, is a man like myself. ‘What he has done, I can do.’ So he decided to learn for himself how to handle a sextant – a task that he found not too difficult.
‘The mystery was mystery no longer. …and yet, such was the miracle of it, I was conscious of new power in me, and I felt the thrill and tickle of pride… I was not as other men – most other men: I knew what they did not know, – the mystery of the heavens, that pointed out the way across the deep….No medicine man nor high priest was ever prouder…I was a worker of miracles. I forgot how easily I had taught myself from the printed page. I forgot that all the work (and a tremendous work, too) had been done by the masterminds before me, the astronomers and mathematicians, who had discovered and elaborated the whole science of navigation…’
Eventually the Snark made her first landfall, just as planned:
‘ “That island is Maui”, we said, verifying by the chart. “…We’ll be in Honolulu tomorrow. Our navigation is all right.” ‘
[Quotes from The Cruise of the Snark by Jack London]