The computer age has reduced the science of navigation to little more than pushing a button on your G.P.S. Once the screen lights up on one of these incredible maritime computers, you have immediate real-time access to concise electronic charting providing your boat's current position, heading and even its speed. This navigation data is incredibly accurate, particularly if you keep your system's chart software up to date.
The Achilles heel for G.P.S. systems is electricity. These miracles of navigation can go down when you need them the most (happened to me just the other day on a charter). Voltage spikes, lightning, corrosion, or even something as simple as a broken lead, can result in your entire system failing, leaving your virtual navigation world as dark as the night sky. For this reason, savvy mariners always utilize more than one navigational system to validate their position and course.
For mariners traversing coastal waters, a compass coupled with a current navigation chart of the area is usually a sufficient adjunct system, especially when landmarks (light houses, tall buildings, radio antennae, etc.) are visible to assist in navigating local waters. However, once you venture out into the open ocean, the only landmarks' available are the sun and stars. Early ocean voyagers learned how to locate these bodies using a sextant and, therefore, were able to precisely calculate their position which allowed them to safely navigate across vast distances.
The ease of use and confidence associated with G.P.S. technology has almost relegated celestial navigation into antiquity. The dependence on astronavigation has been reduced to the point that even the United States Naval Academy no longer requires an in-depth celestial navigation course for Naval Officers who are destined to spend years at sea.
A few years ago I was fishing with a retired Air Force pilot. I mentioned to him that I was fascinated at how sailors were able to navigate around the world using only celestial navigation to find their way. I told him I was planning on teaching myself the concepts and skills required to navigate by the stars. As an "old school" military pilot who received formal training in celestial navigation instruction during flight school, he quickly gave me one of those stunned looks that only comes from first-hand experience and knowledge. I could tell right away he was sure I was destined to fail miserably.
The following year, during his annual Keys' fishing trip, we found ourselves surrounded by a magnificent dark sky filled with stars during a night tarpon trip. I already knew what he was going to say as he turned around with a big smile and smugly asked, "...So, how's that self-taught celestial navigation course progressing?" I hesitantly admitted my failure, explaining how I was continuing to struggling with the complex theories associated with celestial navigation, as well as using a sextant. Reflexively I added, "...However, in my defense, the real problem is that I seem to have a really bad instructor."
I recently discovered the Key West Power Squadron was conducting a celestial navigation course for "old school" mariners and immediately signed up. Our instructor, Dick Schewe, clearly possesses a firm command of the complex theories surrounding celestial navigation, and is also endowed with the unique ability to present this challenging topic in a manner which is both logical and easy to understand. Suddenly, all of those confusing celestial geometric concepts I had read in Bowditch (mariner's manual) were now starting to make sense.
I will admit that, unless I decide to strike out on an ocean voyage, I will probably never be dependent on "reading the stars" as part of my navigation regime. However, I still find the topic of celestial navigation to be very intriguing and knowing that you can pick up a sextant and accurately calculate your way home to be very reassuring. While celestial navigation has lost its luster, it will always remain an important connection to the history of the sea and the sailors who crossed the oceans.
Capt. Pete Peterson welcomes comments and suggestions sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.