Does anyone navigate these days?

By Jerry Freeman

Imagine the scene: it is June 2013 in mid Atlantic, the gyro auto-pilot is steering and the AIS and Sea Me are keeping a lookout by all available means,

The Ostar skipper is engrossed at the chart table reviewing the latest wind grib files down loaded via the Iridium connection and running the routing software to see where the computer has decided the next crucial tack should be.

The phone rings – an urgent call from HQ;

 “Daddy, where are the keys to my bike lock please?”

“On the hook in the utility room where they have always been Darling”

 “Oh thanks, everything ok?”  

“Yep- fine. Bye Darling”,

“Bye Daddy”.

Where are we anyway? The  GPS position to two decimal places of minutes of lat and long, the speed to 100th of a knot and the cog, sog, drift, vmg all displayed in unblinking LEDs at multiple positions above and below decks 24 hours a day for anyone who cares to see. But there is no one there  most of the time. Never mind, it’s all logged at one minute intervals on the data logger on the lap top for later review and generation of the sacred Polars.

So much for mid ocean tranquillity. The electronics have taken over and the skipper is almost surplus to requirements; all he has to do is trim the jib, trim the mainsail, pop in a reef, eat lunch, have a nap, cook supper, watch a movie, and go to bed.

sextantOSTAR life was much more relaxed in the days before GPS, pre iridium, pre computer; there were absolutely no interruptions from multiple bleepers, apart from the ticking alarm clock. From the first race in 1960 right up to the 1984 event the skipper’s day was ruled by the sun sights, taken using a sextant – clouds and fog permitting. The morning sights were taken with the sun climbing fast in the east to give a position line roughly corresponding to longitude (West). The noon sight was observed as the sun ’paused’ briefly at local noon, hoping to catch the maximum altitude of the sun at its zenith to yield the latitude (North) . The results of all this damp and cold deck work,and some advanced spherical geometry at the chart table, were two ’lines of position’ of dubious precision depending on the accuracy of the chronometer, wave height,  skill with the sextant, cloud cover and haze on the horizon.

The snag was that those position lines were perhaps three hours apart. The trick was to run the morning  position line forward on the chart using  the course and distance sailed in those intervening hours ( the dead reckoning, DR)to cross  the noon latitude et voila: the NOON POSITION ( ish )! Within 10 miles was pretty good.

The real joy of the noon position was to measure the distance on the plotting chart from yesterday’s noon fix and Bingo – the DAY’s RUN! 120 miles may be a celebration, or perhaps only 80 – a black dog. By comparing the miles made good with the miles on the trailing Walker log you got a handle on the ocean current, favourable or counter, (or log error), and course made good vs. the compass course that you hoped the Aries wind vane had been steering.

Valentine Howells enjoyed 62 days on the first OSTAR in his Folkboat Eira and relates his adventure in his excellent account; “Sailing into Solitude”. When over 1000 miles out his wristwatch had stopped;

As evening falls I fiddle with the radio searching the airwaves; after a while I get ‘the pips’ and can reset the watch and turn in with a peaceful mind. The next morning dawns fine and clear. My morale when I’m taking the morning sight couldn’t be better. I find she is merely three miles astern of dead reckoning and this small success gives me new found energy.

But what if there was no sun visible, with clouds down to the wave tops, black as night and hence no sights. Well it really did not matter, there was always tomorrow, it may get better, it certainly will be by the end of the week, fingers crossed.

Phil Weld, Ostar winner in 1980, writes in his excellent book ‘Moxie’ about his attempt to get a fix on day sixteen of his record breaking nineteen day passage, on soundings approaching the dreaded Georges Bank;

As soon as the sun had climbed to ten degrees above the horizon, I took the first of what I planned, if cloud cover permitted, as a series of sights, one hour apart by which I could nail down where we are. As I was working the nautical almanac and sight reduction tables the radar detector blinked. I hustled out to be greeted by the friendly orange shape of the Texaco Clipper. Her radio officer gave me our position 42.37’ north by 63.36’ west, 67 miles behind my Dead Reckoning position and 357 miles to Newport RI.

There is nothing wrong with asking for a position ‘check’, I well remember during OSTAR 1992 asking a very large and very grey US Navy transport, (are they all called Rover?) who was less forthcoming. He was more concerned with why his lookouts had not spotted my little yellow thirty foot boat when I could clearly see and describe his derricks and deck cargo at three or four miles range – someone was on a fizzer! This was not a big problem because both Loran and Satnav were used on Alice’s Mirror in 1992. (27 days 08hrs, 38 out of 54)

Mary Falk, OSTAR record holder for the 35 foot mono hull class (19 d 22hrs 57m set  in 1996) recalls her sextant days qualifying for the first of her three OSTARs:

I was navigating with the sextant and dead reckoning using sun-run-meridian altitude. A bit approximate as the sextant was a right-handed one and I’m left-handed and my right arm tended to get tired before I’d finished taking the sight. I remember being very relieved to see the Azores about 80nm off, but then started worrying if it was St Miguel. Luckily it was! For OSTAR 1988 I had Satnav but the engine packed up two thirds of the way across and from then on I had only one solar panel to charge the batteries. So it was back to dead reckoning as fog ruled out the sextant. I had an echo sounder with a removable battery which was very useful passing over the Banks, I had a towed log (but that didn’t matter too much as I knew Quixote’s speed for dead reckoning).

Quixote  was a UFO34 and in 1988 Mary crossed in 27 days 16hrs 39m and finished 4th in her monohull class.

Image source: Sir Francis Chichester Trust

Image source: Sir Francis Chichester Trust

Francis Chichester, winner of that epic first OSTAR in 1960, was the consummate professional astro-navigator, and had demonstrated his skills in 1931 during the first ever solo flight across the Tasman Sea from New Zealand to Australia in his Gypsy Moth float plane.  Diving to 100 feet above the sea and holding a steep bank with the stick between his knees while shooting the sun with a marine sextant and working up his position, long hand with five figure logarithms on a knee pad. Missing the next island meant running out of fuel, landing on the sea and almost certain death.

The significance and excitement of the last position fix before sighting America after crossing the Atlantic is a pleasure that the eludes the modern skipper.  Val Howells again on that magic moment:

I enter our position on the American coastal chart… a great feeling. Of all the hundreds of positions I have ever marked on a chart, this one gives me, without a doubt, the deepest satisfaction…four thousand miles is a long way in anybody’s boat. Although I am certain of the boat’s position I suffer another attack of ‘navigationitis’. If we were approaching the Pearly Gates, I’d be forced to enquire of Peter if this really is the place we’re bound for.

Every OSTAR skipper up to and including the 1984 race had to devote many hours to sun and star sights for the long duration of their races – famous names like Eric Tabarly in Pen Duick, Alain Colas, Mike Richey (FRIN) in Jester, the list is endless, but did that make them better sailors than the current ones?

You bet it did!


About the Author

Jerry Freeman completed the OOSTAR in 1984, 1992 and 2009, and races his J105, ‘Juliette’ in the Solent. He is now an entrant for the 2013 OSTAR.