Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Guest blog written by Oults

Magellan's journal: Nov/Dec 2019

Setting sail in the good ship Hera from Las Palmas, armed with only a sextant and a pair of binoculars (with nifty compass embedded within), many of my correspondents, and most especially my crew mates, cast doubt on the likelihood of our ever reaching landfall in the right ocean, let alone on the right Caribbean island, if I was to take any part in the navigation. And to be fair, my first few readings were a little erratic, reaching a somewhat dangerous low when I placed us in the middle of the Sahara desert on 28th November, some 5 days' out to sea.

But these same critics did not attend the salty session in Las Palmas
given by 'Stokey', the bearded mariner who prides himself on being able to
sail around the world armed only with a long wave radio, a rolled piece of
newspaper and a frying pan; whereas yours truly (a.k.a. Magellan) did. Nor
did they attend the sextant session led by Christopher "weather man"
Tibbs, in which we learnt which way up to hold the odd looking
contraption. And thus it was that we headed out into the Atlantic, in the
secure knowledge that, if the bank of electronic tracking devices that
purr away day and night, pin pointing our position to the nearest 5
metres, were to fail, all would be well.

The truly bizarre thing is that the said contraption really does work. I'm
damned if I actually understand the maths behind it, and goodness knows
I've spent long enough over the past 2 weeks reading my Guide to Celestial
Navigation, but in a nut shell, this is how it works. If you are mad
enough to sit out in the midday sun clutching a sextant to your eye, and
can be bothered to wait until the angle of the sun – which goes up and up
as the morning wears on – stops rising, and note it down, then bingo, with
a quick calculation involving some black magic tables that come with the
sextant, you get your latitude. And if you also happen to note down the
precise time at which this magical event occurs, and calculate how long
the sun must have travelled from Greenwich before it got to you, flying
along at 900 miles per hour, then you have your longitude.

Now I know you will think this is a total load of baloney, but to my
amazement, and that of my indulgent crew mates, the estimation of our
position got closer and closer to what Mr Frew's expensive plotter had to
say on the matter. From being out by up to 300 miles in both directions at
the start of our trip, my latest plot put us within 3 miles (north/south)
and 30 miles (east/west) of our actual position – certainly close enough
to be sure of hitting St Lucia smack in the kisser on a dark and stormy

Of course to be a real ace at all of this, the real trick is to be able to
plot your position simply by looking at the sun or any of the stars at any
time of the day or night. One of the greatest privileges of our time on
Hera is the ability to sit and watch the universe in all its majesty. When
you are on dawn watch, you sit with a cup of tea watching the moon over
the bow, and Sirius (the Dog Star) acting as a beacon, leading you west as
Orion dips his head beneath the waves. The horizon behind the boat
gradually establishes itself as a dim grey line, then lightens until a red
tinge is discerned on one small part of the sea, which at first slowly
widens and deepens into a bright red before turning orange. The clouds
above become a dazzling mix of reds and pinks and yellows while the sun
itself forces its way up out of the sea. Red turns to gold as a small
slither appears and, before your very eyes, rises majestically into the
sky above, getting bigger and bigger, hotter and hotter, until dusk is
banished and another day on the seas begins.

In the evening it is the reverse. The evening star rises as dusk falls and
the happy band of sailors sip their cold beer and reflect on the day. The
moon, now almost full, comes up over our port bow and one by one the
constellations appear with their names, full of romance and steeped in
mythology: Auriga (the charioteer), Cygnus (the swan), Canis Major (the
big dog) and his little friend, Canis Minor (containing only two visible
stars). Cassiopeia, reclining like the vain temptress she was, and the
majestic Orion, famed for his belt (the only bit we can make out clearly
in the light-polluted sky at home) but out here on the ocean, clear and
proud with his two shoulders, his two feet, and his sword. The 7 sisters
are there, high up in the east, and below them, distinct and bright, are
the twins, Castor and Pollux. And later, much later, the Plough, Ursa
Major, deigns to join us and point, belatedly, at Polaris, the north star.
Who, seeing all of this unfold, could remain unmoved? And who, when taking
over a watch late into the night or early in the morning, could not be
temporarily disorientated by the huge shifts of position that these stars
go through as the night unfolds?

I may not yet be able to divine my ground position on the ocean from
observing these heavenly wonders; that will have to wait. But I can watch
in wonder and give thanks for the opportunity Frewie has given us in
bringing us here on the good ship Hera. And as our genial skipper snatches
the odd hour's well deserved sleep below, and his humble would be
celestial navigator takes notional charge of his vessel for an hour or
two, I'm sure I am not alone amongst the crew in feeling the most
unbelievable sense of gratitude. Many, many thanks, Mr Frew; and if the
GPS goes tits up, fear not: I've got my sextant.

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