With the modern seafarerıs reliance on the state-of-the-art electronic navigation suites–GPS, radars, and electronic chart displays-navigation has perhaps been reduced to a pure science whose precision is measured in decimals. But Navigation was once considered an art. Lacking modern navigation tools the navigator primarily relied on a few basic tools–the sextant, compass, and chronometer–and observations of the heavens to deduce his position at sea. The navigator, hunched over the chart table, surrounded by almanacs, volumes of ephemeredes, and mathematical tables, plumbing the depths of trigonometry guided by intuition, coaxing errant lines of position to form a fixed position, seems more akin to the medieval alchemist in his lab surrounded by tomes of arcane lore, astrological diagrams, and failed attempts of transmuting lead to gold than the modern scientist.
Successful navigation was a skill developed over time and through trial-and-error (provided the errors were not catastrophic). It was a talent honed over a life at sea. After spending the past semesters learning the more banal ³scientific² aspects of navigation I was anxious to finally get my hands on a sextant and begin learning the art of navigation. I was looking for a connection to a by-gone era, a chance to match wits and ability with the great navigators of the past.
May 29, 2003 15:45 UTC, I stood on the after end of the sun deck looking out over the sea, following the path of the Sunıs reflected rays to the distant horizon. Having carefully adjusted what errors I could from the antique sextant (another connection with a by-gone era) generously provided me by the school, I was ready to take my first sight of the Sunıs altitude. I lowered the shade glasses, raised the sextantıs telescope to my eye, and looked up to where I thought the Sun to be.
After some fishing around I finally caught sight of the Sun in my mirror. Its overwhelming brilliance muted by the shade glass, it appeared as a luminous disc with crisp edges as it danced about my mirror. Breathing deeply to still my heart and steady my shaking arm I was able to quiet the agitation of the Sun. Carefully I released the sextant arm and hesitantly began swinging the now captive Sun down to meet the awaiting horizon below.
Like the pendulum on a grandfather clock I rocked the sun in a gentle arc to bring its lowest point into tangency with the line of the horizon. One final rock of the sextant, a final adjustment of the sextantıs micrometer drum and the Sunıs lower edge gently kissed the surface of the sea.
³One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two,² lowering the sextant and glancing at my watch I noted the time. In Greenwich, England it was 15:47 and 40 seconds (accounting for the two it took to note the time) when I successfully brought down Apolloıs chariot to King Neptuneıs realm.
I looked at my sextant- 62° 04.4'