March 26, 2009

Stars in his eyes

I HAVE JUST edited a charming little article that will appear in Good Old Boat magazine’s July issue. It’s about a man who has been sailing all his life, 30 years or more of experience in fact, including crossing and recrossing the Pacific in his own small boat. The point of the article is that never, in all this time, has he managed to learn the names of the stars, let alone find the right ones for navigation.

Michael Kilday took a four-week course on celestial navigation in the 1970s but was completely unable to fix the constellations in his head. He looked in vain for The Scorpion, The Lion, and Orion’s Belt. Even the Big and Little Dippers eluded him. However, he found that if he stared at the firmament long enough he could find almost any constellation he could imagine, including The Bunny and The Naked Lady.

He was ashamed of himself at the time, because the experts all agreed that if you intended to go to sea, you had to know your stars, and how to shoot them with a sextant. Nevertheless, he found his way around the oceans quite safely with the sole aid of two celestial objects he knew he could identify without doubt — the sun and the moon.

He has got over his shame by now, of course, but he still remembers it as he and his wife sip their sundown rum-’n-Cokes in a beautiful anchorage in Grenada, in the West Indies. Like the rest of us he now navigates with a GPS plotter that tells him exactly where he is at night without any need to consult the constellations, and even if the cloud cover is 100 percent.

I can identify with Mr. Kilday. I, too, failed the star-chart test. It didn’t take me four weeks, though. One glance was enough to convince me that my brain wasn’t big enough to take it all in. I knew that immediately. But, like Mr. Kilday, I managed to find my way across the Atlantic twice with the aid of the sun only. Even the moon was too much for me. Figuring out the squirrely movement of the moon was far too much work. But working with the good old reliable sun was easy. I could find my position at any time during the hours of daylight. And, at an average speed of 5 knots, that turned out to be plenty good enough.

I take my hat off to those small-boat navigators who habitually took star sights at dawn and dusk, and swore that it was quite easy. What they didn’t realize, though, was that it was far easier not to take star sights at all. There are times in life when it doesn’t pay to listen to the experts.

Today’s Thought
These earthly godfathers of heaven’s lights
That give a name to every fixed star
Have no more profit of their shining nights
Than those who walk and know not what they are.
—Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost.

The Administration Committee of a large hospital recently decided to add a new wing. They asked a panel of doctors to vote on the idea.

The Allergists voted to scratch it and the Dermatologists advised them not to make any rash moves. The Gastro-enterologists had sort of a gut feeling about it, but the Neurologists thought the administration had a lot of nerve. The Obstetricians felt they were all laboring under a misconception.

The Ophthalmologists considered the idea short-sighted; the Pathologists yelled, “Over my dead body,” while the Pediatricians said, “Oh, grow up!”

The Psychiatrists thought the whole idea was madness; the Radiologists could see right through it, and the Surgeons decided to wash their hands of the whole thing. The Internists thought it was a bitter pill to swallow, and the Plastic Surgeons said, “This puts a whole new face on the matter.” The Podiatrists thought it was a step forward, but the Urologists felt the scheme wouldn’t hold water.

The Anesthesiologists thought the whole idea was a gas and the Cardiologists didn’t have the heart to say no. In the end, the Proctologists left the decision up to some asshole in Administration.


David said...

I am an inexperienced sailor, yet somehow I know that If I keep my boat pointed east (or whatever direction towards my goal) I will end up hitting something eventually.
I try to explain this to people... The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, that bright star in the morning is north (northrn hemisphere), compass!, depth, speed... distance x time = miles and so on.

But folks insist I must become an expert in celestial navigation to even attempt to cross an ocean. Nevermind the gps... but "just in case".

If you have a general Idea of where you are, and a general Idea of where you are going, you are doing well IMO. Its been done that way for 1000+ years.

Not that I don't plan on using a gps, I do. but the lack of a sextant or expertise in celestial navigation WILL NOT stop me from going where (or close to) I want to go, even if things go wrong, I'll be ok and find my way :)

BTW: I'm pretty sure you shot yourself in the foot with that second-to-last entry :)

John Vigor said...

David, youre absolutely right. I've always maintained that if I have enough food and water on board, there's no problem -- I've got to hit land sooner or later, just as Columbus did, and a whole lot of explorers before him.

I enjoyed sextant navigation, a la Mary Blewitt. It was very simple and very satisfying. But the sextant has now gone the way of the latitude hook and the backstaff. We have moved on. The sextant's place has been taken by GPS -- and common sense.


John V.