Aboard Tenacious day??

Cape St Vincent
Cape St Vincent and fishing boat

Such are the joys of life on the rolling wave that I’ve lost track of which day this is.

This will be my last post for a while as we are soon going to be making our departure from Cape St Vincent – a cliffy promontory surmounted by a large lighthouse that marks the western limit of continental Europe. After that I’ll be out of cell phone range.

Having spent a cosy night at anchor, to avoid bashing out into the gale then blowing, we set sail this morning in much more comfortable conditions – northerly force 4/5.  And I have a new berth – in a double cabin which I’m sharing with Stu, a garden designer who is besotted with Madeira!

my new cabin - mine is the top bunk
my new cabin – mine is the top bunk

We’re now about to cross the traffic separation scheme designed to prevent collisions among the many ships that sail past this historic headland – named after the great British Admiral.

Cape St Vincent
Cape St Vincent

Lunch today was chicken fajita with salad – very good too!

At 1600 I’m scheduled to do another talk on celestial navigation. Last night at anchor I showed some of the voyage crew how to use the sextant and we took some sights of the moon and Venus. Their results were impressively accurate.

the author on the bridge
the author on the bridge

We’re a more cosmopolitan crew on this voyage. We have people from Spain (Pablo), Portugal (Hélio) and Latvia (Eleanora) on board. Pablo is an expert in the field of artificial intelligence and Hélio has written a thesis exploring Portugal’s changing relationship with the sea.

Eleanora and Helio on the forecastle - at sea
Eleanora and Helio on the forecastle – at sea

And now we head our into the Atlantic, on a broad reach under a warm sun – and on the right course: due west. Who could ask for more?

at sea
at sea
at sea
at sea
at sea
at sea

The author of the ‘The Call of the Wild’ on celestial navigation…and the dangers of pride!


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]

Royal Institute of Navigation award for ‘Sextant’

On 16 July I went to the Royal Geographical Society to receive the ‪#‎RoyalInstituteofNavigation‬ Certificate of Achievement from the Patron, the Duke of Edinburgh – in recognition of my ‘contribution to the history and popularisation of navigation’ through my book ‘Sextant’.

A very enjoyable occasion with a talk from ‪#‎Inmarsat‬ experts about how they tracked ‪#‎FlightMH370‬ as well as a fascinating lecture from ‪#‎ProfessorKathrynJeffery‬, of University College London on the neural foundations of navigational skills.

And of course very gratifying to be recognised by the head honchos of navigation!

A celestial navigation renaissance may be under way …

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 10.29.12Yesterday I was really pleased to get a message from Ron Wisner, who had just read and really enjoyed ‘Sextant’.  He tells me that there is a ‘small renaissance’ in celestial navigation taking place on the other side of the Atlantic.  Ron drew my attention in particular to the Marion-Bermuda Race – http://www.marionbermuda.com/- which includes a class specifically for yachts relying on celestial navigation:


This is what Ron says:

Mastering celestial navigation is not merely an antiquated backup to your electronics. The knowledge of history, the awareness of the heavens, the simple recognition of the planets as the brightest most prominent “stars” are all part of a greater heritage that comes with the ability to navigate by the celestial sphere. As sailors we owe it to ourselves – and to those who handed this skill down to us – to learn and pay it forward to the next generation of sailors. After all, isn’t it our responsibility as sailors to pass on our experience?…to hand down our traditional skills? Are we not are sailors? If you are one who has this itch, read on to learn more about why, how and where to scratch it. Imagine making that turn into the coral channel off St. David’s Head, triumphant in the knowledge that you crossed over 600 miles of open ocean with just your sextant and a compass to guide you…

Navigation is perhaps the most important skill we have on the water. And who does not believe in their soul that they have not truly joined their sailing brethren of the previous two thousand years until they have sailed by the sun and stars? A “star to steer by” is not just a line from a poem but an iconic and intrinsic part of the meaning of sailing. It may be a romantic notion but more and more, today’s sailors are failing to be smitten. How to find oneself on a featureless sea is a question whose answer took those two thousand years to develop. Lest we forget, this answer has been handed to us in the last generation – intact, elegant, and codified with tables for stars, navigational planets, the sun, and the moon. It’s all there like a giant celestial clock…no batteries required.

If I have succeeded in convincing you that celestial navigation is a skill worth learning, then let me tell you that the Marion to Bermuda race is probably the best opportunity for you to learn it and to put it into practice.

What a great idea!  I hope other clubs will follow this wonderful example.