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The Navigator's Lament
November 27th, 2012 @ 04:25 PM EST by admin

As many of you know, I have had a continuous and peculiar interest in navigation, which had afforded me a certain amount of deference from my fellow sailors. Alas, with the advent of GPS, this has disappeared and now all I can hope for is that some cataclysmic event such as a direct lightening strike will knock out all those electronic devices. While musing on this delicious thought, I came across an article by Tony Gibbs in a September 1981 copy of Yachting. He clearly explains the true nature of an accomplished navigator.

After reading the following article, I was chagrined to recognize myself in every paragraph. Nevertheless, if there are enough members who would still like to learn this old fashioned but still useful “black art” navigation, there will be a four-night course this winter. Let Samantha know if you are interested.

Nick de Munnik

Confessions of a Navigator

After years of misdirected effort I finally realized that simply learning how to guide a boat from place to place would never make me a navigator. No, as the Wizard of Oz would have affirmed, what I needed was not knowledge, but an aura. All the navigators I’ve known have had auras, and looking back on my experiences with them, it’s easy to see that the awe these folks inspired among their fellow crew members derived from this special nimbus not from any mundane skill at figuring out where the hell we were. Fully half the time, I now appreciate, they were just as lost as the rest of us.

The most important element of the total navigational persona is absolute self-confidence. The ability to deny the cumulative evidence of $50,000 worth of electronics is not easy to achieve, but it’s worth the effort. The true navigator is absolutely convinced that only his skills keep all those flashing, clicking, whirling dials honest. What is sometimes surprising is the eagerness with which the rest of the crew will believe the unsupported word of a man they would not otherwise trust to buy a candy bar without becoming disoriented.

An air of mystical profundity is perhaps next most valuable. Wearing a long robe or a pointed hat with stars and planets on it will hardly serve these days, but the navigator must cultivate a preoccupation that suggests he is in constant touch with another world. An occasional remark about horizontal parallax or the double second difference, overriding someone else’s anecdote, will usually do it. Another helpful trick is to bring along an alarm clock set for any time you like. When it goes off, scaring the daylights out of everyone, you just observe with quiet satisfaction “the transit of Mercury” and go back to what you were doing. The impression you seek to convey is that you have arranged the transit of Mercury (whatever that is) solely through your own skill.

Contrary to what one might think, it is well not to appear too nautical. If you turn up wearing carpet slippers and a once white shirt tightly buttoned at the neck and cuffs, you are not likely to be summoned to the foredeck at three in the morning. Indeed, one of your first goals is to establish your base aboard the yacht, while making it clear that only the rights of navigation can force you on deck into the hot sun and corrosive salt breezes. If the yacht has the conventional chart table with adjacent quarter berth, take it without asking. Spread your gear about generously. If you must leave your berth unguarded, a couple of dirty socks and a half-eaten sandwich will usually deter squatters. But although squalor has its uses, portentousness is almost always more effective.

The chart is your first prop. Pin it to the chart table with large rusty tacks. The proper chart appears to have accompanied Vasco da Gama on his initial voyage and have been in continuous use ever since. Its surface is a maze of old position marks, while a pleasing note of color is added by red, yellow and orange underlining of prominent seaboard lights and radio beacon sites. Whatever cannot be underlined should be crossed out.

Equally important is the logbook. Only amateurs who care about where they’re going use real logbooks. True navigators favor slightly used, hard bound ledgers or, best of all, spiral-bound notebooks. Label the cover something like “1979 Transat” or “Chichester voyage”. A large stain that might be blood is not a bad touch. The first half of the book will be filled with illegible notes . . . an extended grocery list, soaked for a few minutes, will serve. If anyone asks, just say that you thought you’d use up the last few empty pages for this trip.

The key tool, however, remains the sextant. Never mind that it’s function is often only symbolic. The only way to distinguish navigators from people is that the former always have sextants. Since a modern sextant is remarkably simple to use, it is best to acquire an old one, preferably with a vernier sufficiently obscured so practically no one can read it. If it has no built-in error, make one up. Not only will this make your sight reduction forms more impressive, but it will also put you one up on crew members who want to use your instrument. While the sextant must be kept, like the arc of the covenant, in a place of absolute safety, it should also be located where it can inconvenience as many people as possible. Otherwise, why bring it at all.

The moment of navigational truth, when you ascend the companionway to shoot the sun, moon or whatever has presented itself, must be an occasion of ceremony. You will need an acolyte to take time for you and another to write down the mystic results. With proper pre-planning you can have the skipper heave-to during the process, thereby causing maximum difficulty all around.

Lashed in a prominent position, you elevate your instrument, to the accompaniment of a rapid-fire murmur of encouragement, objurgation and commentary, just as Sherlock Holmes used to say while crawling around the floor with a magnifying glass. The Delphic Sybil was wont to operate from a hysterical trance while inhaling funny smoke, but this may be over-dramatizing. You may take your sights too rapidly for your helpers to follow, or so slowly that they are aware of your world-weary condescension . . . either procedure is effective.

Obviously abstracted by your glimpse of the great beyond, you stalk back down the companionway without a word to anyone, to begin the painful process of reduction. If you are fortunate enough to be far from land, you can announce your actual results no matter what they are, but in cases of necessity, it may be best to square them with the loran (or GPS). Just remember that, as far as the crew is concerned, what’s being checked is the electronic device, not your skill; you can endorse it, not the other way around.

While it is regrettably true that modern electronics have led the great unwashed to the chart table, there is still room for the true navigator’s art to bloom. And while the performance may be more difficult than it once was, it is still a lot better than standing watches.

Tony Gibbs