An excellent art

Navigation is that excellent Art, which demonstrateth by infallible conclusions, how a sufficient Ship may be conducted the shortest good way from place to place, by Table and Travers.

John Davis, The Seaman's Secrets, 1594

Electronics took its time killing traditional navigation. The first hint of its intentions was in 1906 when the Italians Bellini and Tosi found how to determine the direction from which radio signals were transmitted. By the end of the 1940s radio navigation had grown to include Consol, Decca, Loran-C (the Russians had their version called Chayka), and Omega, the son of a 1940s development called Radux and the first worldwide positioning system. It even had its own differential system for improved accuracy and was switched off only in 1997. It is hard to believe that only 30 years ago hi-tech, electronic navigation for most yachtsmen was donning a set of headphones and waving a glorified transistor radio vaguely towards a radio beacon in the hope of obtaining a bearing on a magnetic compass that could be plotted on a paper chart.

The introduction of inertia navigation was ignored by the leisure sailor and the arrival of satellite navigation gave no hint of its future dominance. With only one, often doubtful, fix every half hour or so and a cumbersome, parsimonious display, the Transit system hardly seemed worth the expense and certainly no reason to throw away your sextant.

Navigational calculators were expensive and rarely found on yachts. A few enthusiasts wrote simple navigation programmes for the handful of calculators that could be persuaded to remember a few keystrokes. Primitive by today's standards and less than user friendly, these were the ancestors of those managing today's GPS sets.

There were no digital charts. Positions were plotted on paper, just as they had been since the Egyptians invented papyrus.

Navigation stubbornly remained more art than science, heavy with traditions. Innovation, when finally accepted, came in small, genteel steps building carefully on what had gone before. The sextant's lineage goes back over 2,000 years to the astrolabe. Robert Hooke showed the prototype of the modern sextant to the Royal Society in 1666. Isaac Newton described his notion for a double reflecting sextant to a Royal Society meeting in1699. Both ideas sank without trace. It was 1731 before Thomas Godfrey in America, and John Hadley, a London instrument maker, simultaneously and independently re-invented the double reflecting quadrant. In the summer of 1837, over a century later, Captain Thomas H Sumner accidentally developed the celestial position line but it was 1875 before Captain, later Admiral, Marc St Hilaire cracked the maths behind the altitude-difference method of establishing a position line, and the middle of the 20th century was approaching before short method tables were published.

The rotator log replaced the medieval log ship towards the end of the 19th century. Around the 1930s the micrometer drum superseded the vernier scale on sextants. In the late 1950s, the echo-sounder finally took over from the lead line. Hardly revolutionary progress. Well into the 1980s, navigators like Cook or Bligh would have had no difficulty in coming up to speed on the latest techniques and then showing us how it should be done.

In an overnight coup, the microchip deposed centuries of tradition and changed everything. Watches, so accurate that in the past they would have been cherished as top end chronometers, became so cheap that they were disposable. LCD screens provided detailed information in easily understood language that superseded the analogue display. Plotters, digital charts, digital compasses, radios, autohelms, radars, and, soon after it went fully operational in 1995, GPS, all quickly became commonplace on the smallest yacht.

The computer in every instrument began networking with every other, and displaying more information than any reasonable navigator was able to use. Modern navigation requires no prior knowledge or skill. If you can send a text message then you can navigate. The distinction between coastal and ocean navigation, novice and expert, amateur and professional, vanished. Knowing why or understanding how it is done is unimportant - irrelevant. Since May 1998, the United States Naval Academy has stopped running courses on celestial navigation. The sextant is dead. Long live the microchip!

There is a downside. Electronic navigation makes the divine right of kings look like democracy in action. Instruments talk, but only to their equals and then announce decisions set in tablets of stone. Their proclamations are assumed accurate to several decimal places and their absolute reliability is unquestioned. Cross checking by traditional methods reveals only gross errors and since computers never err, why bother? So we no longer cross check, and age-old knowledge is forgotten.

But what happens when your electronic wizardry abdicates and leaves you alone with silent, blank screens upon an empty sea? After checking its connections and giving an encouraging thump you can do little more. Modern instruments are impervious to user repair. Why they fail is irrelevant. The fact is you are in the middle of nowhere and want to go home. The question is, how?

The kneejerk, textbook solution of digging out a paper chart and sharpening a pencil works brilliantly in the clubhouse, but unless you remember long-forgotten skills, have a clockwork log and magnetic compass you are going nowhere. Bar room knowledge may take you clear of the yacht club but before long you won't know where you are, how you got there, or how to return in time to buy your round. You need 'Crash Bag' (emergency) Navigation. The chances are it will get you to the bar on time and with a good tale to tell.

This book explains the principles involved in finding your way without instruments, and how to make simple instruments from materials you have on board. But you will find no answers, simple or otherwise. No formulaic solution can cover every situation. It is up to you to use the principles and techniques described in this book in a way that meets your circumstances. We modern navigators may not be as accurate, skilful or confident as those who learned these techniques through a long apprenticeship and used them every day, but we would have to be really slow not to learn enough to dig ourselves out of a hole and reach port.

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