In Defense of the Old School

Since I've been spending a lot of time at sea on slow boats recently, I decided to teach myself celestial navigation. I told this to a friend.

"Get with the times, Grandpa," he said. "GPS has rendered celestial navigation obsolete."

He is right. We are living in the future. Every sailboat has tiny computers now that give us our exact position all the time. 

In the early days of GPS, the need for redundancy validated celestial navigation--plan B in case the electronics get wet or catch on fire or all those newfangled satellites fall out of the sky.

But now GPS units are so cheap that you can have a whole sack of battery operated backups for the price of a sextant. And consider all the stuff you need in addition to the sextant to fix your position accurately: an almanac, sight reduction tables, plotting sheets, a slide ruler, dividers, and a pencil, at least. 

I concede that celestial navigation is no longer a necessary skill. 

Newsflash: Neither is sailing. 

We have planes to transport people and container ships for cargo. Bobbing around in a Sun Prancer 37 with the latest high tech instruments is like driving a nuclear-powered train.

I love sailing because it requires engagement with the environment. We have to tune into the frequencies of nature to utilize the wind and the current to our advantage. 

Celestial navigation deepens that process tremendously. 

Two weeks ago I was in the middle of the Pacific taking my first twilight fix. I knew from my almanac and tables exactly when the first stars would appear after sunset. As the sun faded in the west, the eastern sky turned purple and then dark blue. Distant cumulus clouds, seedling squalls, lit up like embers in a dying fire. My friends appeared in the sky. Strong Arcturus, bright in the west. Deneb, Vega, and Altair in a triangle overhead. Antares low in the south, on the arched back of Scorpius. Saturn nearby, unblinking. I stand on the rolling deck and with the same tool used by the great navigators of the past three centuries, I measure the height of lights millions of years old. Later these measurements translate to intersecting lines on paper that tell me my precise position in the universe. 

I'll take that over a computer screen any day.