Skip to content

Celestial Navigation, Part I–Credit Where is Due

October 15, 2011

Day 17

Local Noon Position (1126):
By GPS: 12.40.43N by 145.25.75W
By Sextant: 12.42.8N by 145.24W

Note: All sights today in cloud, and I was surprised how well the sun shades work to pull an orb shape out of a grey sky.

Course: 310 degrees true
Speed: 6.8 knots
Wind: 10 knots NNE
Sea: 1 – 2 feet S
Sky: 100% occluded. Entering yet another large, dark cell now (noon). Bar: 1011
Temp: 79 degrees

Since last noon: 145 Best single-day of Murre’s cruising career! Total for passage: 1871
Daily average: 117
Miles to Hilo: 691

Our remarkable mileage for yesterday is due to sailing fast and having a current with us. Wind has been steady now for two days at 9 to 12 knots from ENE to (briefly) NNW, and as I write, it appears we may be reaching the edge of this frontier of deep cloud cover–nothing but open sky ahead–which could announce the end of the ITCZ. We shall see. Today wind has moved more into the NNE than I could wish; we are close hauled, and I am glad I made all the easting I did. Some light rain today that, in combination with the heavy rains overnight, which I caught in a five gallon bucket at the main mast goose neck, allowed me to wash face and hair in fresh water for a change. This morning a blue footed boobie attempted to land on the main mast and got a good thwack when the mast head rolled back off a swell. I heard a squawk, saw a ruffle of feathers as the bird tried to recapture itself in flight, and then off it went. No more attempts. Other birds in groups: fairy terns and sooty terns with my gadfly petrels. A pod of eight dolphins played at Murre’s bow wave for an hour some time later, and just now (dusk) I saw a large pod of dolphins on the hunt and cutting up the water something fierce. All of which makes me feel like we are getting close, though Hilo is still nearly over 700 miles away.


(Note: Spending so much time in conversation with itself, the mind of the singlehander comes to regard its own fascinations as necessarily fascinating to all. Along those lines I have been contemplating a series of short articles on Celestial Navigation that, you will be relieved to learn, are unlikely to be birthed. However, this first little piece I have been wanting to share for some time.)


My fascination with seafaring I owe to my father, who was a merchant marine the first half of his working life.

The frame of his tale has classic elements: born poor in the midwest; unhappy childhood; at twelve ran away to the big city (Chicago); searched-out by his father and forcibly returned home; at thirteen hatched a better plan, took a menial job on a Great Lakes coal ship and never came back.

Later he joined the deep-sea merchant service. He was enterprising; he studied his craft, and, when age allowed, took his exams and passed for mate. Over time he advanced to captain. He was in the merchant service during WWII, serving on ships whose routes passed into threatened waters. One hit a mine and was sunk. Another caught a torpedo. He has been rescued from the icy Atlantic by a submarine.

His early mentor was a captain with the salty name of Jellison, a terse, demanding, but even-tempered northeasterner whose only display of emotion was, when angry, to walk to the bridgedeck and “spit dry”. Another captain for whom he served was a drunk who secretly stowed cases of whisky in his cabin, which he rarely left. During one passage, this man shot dead one of his crew for insolence. As an officer, my dad often carried a large, metal flashlight in his hip pocket to aid with the enforcement of discipline and for self defense.

For years he was on the Boston to Seattle run for a company called Luckenbach. He has seen winter storms whose waves were so great that the whole ship dropped into the trough at a 45 degree angle; green walls of water bodily over the bow would send a shudder through the superstructure, and to those on the bridge, her resurrection was not at all certain. “I have held onto the bridge railing so hard, I left a hand print,” said my dad.

To a boy, this was like having a dad who was an astronaut. It was excellent. Nothing seemed more exciting or manly than being a sailor, nothing bigger or more important than a ship. By the time I was born, my dad had retired from the sea: he went to college, started a family, got regular jobs like other men. But select artifacts of his early life remained in the house like treasure. In his closet hung his officer’s uniform and medallioned hat, which I often wore when he wasn’t around. In the cupboard where mother kept the vacuum was his set of large black bridge binoculars. For a time, his mates license hung from the wall looking like minted money. On the bookshelf was a fat Maritime Dictionary in blue cloth with drawings of hoists and great metal bulkheads and engine rooms and diagrams of tall masts with their yards and rigging and sails. Next to it was an old copy of Moby Dick, illustrated by Rockwell Kent, whose pictures were so evocative I never tried to read the book–pine tar and whale fat and danger oozed from the pages.

On the shelf above these books was the most mysterious of dad’s sea-faring items. Its varnished mahogany case was propped open and tilted back and on a wooden frame inside the box rested his brass sextant, held as if it were a museum piece. The handle was polished wood and the mirrors of a mercurial silver. Filling the frame were diagonal supports that looked like flying buttresses. At the end of the index bar a tiny scope hung over the micrometers whose minute, engraved numbers spoke of precision and care. It was so heavy I struggled to hold it to my eye. “With this arm you bring the sun down to the horizon,” my dad would say. And I was amazed. I had thought only Joshua could command the sun.

A father does not teach celestial navigation to his young boy when the family lives in forested mountains hours from the sea and when the boy’s enjoyment of mathematics is in grave doubt. I was taught other things. On clear nights when we were sitting in the front yard dad would talk about the constellations and show me how to find the North Star. He taught me the proper, seaman’s way to tie a bowline, a clove hitch, a reef knot, that buoys are always “Red Right Returning from sea”, and that compass variation is “East, add it on.” He taught me that when given an order, the sailor responds with “Aye Sir,” and repeats the order. “Aye Sir, go clean my room.” I always thought he was overly fond of that particular sailor’s rule.

Dad never spoke of the sea romantically. Sailing was a job and seamanship a serious, uncertain business. He never waxed poetical over sunsets or moonrises; he never talked of the dazzling colors of waves or flying fish as a spray of diamonds, but I know he felt it, a sense of deep wonder. Over the years his sextant has come to symbolized both, the serious side of seamanship and the grandeur. For as Cunliffe says, “Only the most cynical never felt a tingle of awe at the thought that they had fixed their position to within a mile or two on the planet we call home by observations of stars and galaxies marching in silence through the infinity of space.” And so as I bring the sun down to the horizon each day I am reminded of my dad. I hope he is enjoying this passage as much as I for I would not have done it without him.

My old man was born in 1921 and turns 90 this month. Please join me in wishing him a happy birthday.


One Comment
  1. October 16, 2011 4:08 am

    Happy Birthday Dad! From one of the young pups who was most proud to make your acquaintance in the late ’70s. A love of the sea: what a fine value to instill into your son. Wishing you all the best –KR.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: