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Bowditch's British cousin takes a livelier approach

Jan 1, 2003

In a recent issue, there were two articles referring to Nathaniel Bowditch and the American Practical Navigator, the navigation tome that bears his name. There is no question as to the great value of this book, and any student of navigation should certainly own a copy. At the same time there would hardly be any dispute among those familiar with this book that the presentation of information, though complete, is, to say the least, dry to the point of inducing sleep. There are those who would argue that the technical information in American Practical Navigator must be communicated in a "textbook" fashion, but there is at least one book that disproves that premise. I am referring to Squire Lecky's Wrinkles in Practical Navigation. This massive book -- it has more than 800 pages -- might be considered the English equivalent of Bowditch. Known simply as Wrinkles, Thorton Lecky's compendium contains all the information required of a mariner. However, unlike other serious textbooks on the subject, Wrinkles is the only one that manages to communicate necessary information in a way that makes the reader feel both informed and entertained. This is no mean feat, especially when dealing with subjects such as lunar time or azimuths. On the frontispiece of the 1920 edition that I own (the 20th edition), it states that Squire Lecky was a Master Mariner, a commander, R.N.R., F.R.A.S., F.R.G.S., etc. We also read that Lecky was "Late His Majesty's Indian Navy." He was also an "Extra Master," "Passed in Steam," "Compass Adjustment," "Younger Brother of the Trinity House," and "Marine Superintendent of the Great Western Railway." Other books to his credit include The Danger Angle, as well as Offshore Distance Tables and Lecky's General Utility Tables. First published in 1881, the aim of Wrinkles was to ". . . furnish seamen with thoroughly practical hints, such as are not found in the ordinary works on navigation; in order . . . to conduct his vessel safely and expeditiously from port to port." Lecky's personality is present on every page. He sounds as a man who enjoyed life and all its contradictions and absurdities. He also seems to understand the mindset of his readers. He writes almost apologetically: ". . . if occasionally the reader of quick apprehension is irritated by too great minuteness, he must remember that, as far as possible, every imaginable question has to be anticipated and that a single point left unexplained may render useless an otherwise careful description." As for the title, Lecky is not referring to the wrinkles of worry that every mariner develops going to sea. "Every sailor," Lecky writes, "knows that a wrinkle means some trick, some method to help solve the problem. A means usually acquired by experience." The book was thus written for ". . . everyday navigation aboard ship to teach the mariner to think for himself . . . and one of the leading objects has been to elucidate in plain English some of those important elementary principles which the savants have enveloped in such a haze of mystery as to render the pursuit hopeless to any but a skilled mathematician. Few sailors are good mathematicians and in the writer's opinion, it is fortunate that such is the case; for nature rarely combines the mathematical talent of a Cambridge wrangler with that practical tact, observation of outward things, and readiness in an emergency, so essential to a successful sea captain." Wrinkles is delightful to read. Take, for instance, Lecky's observations on mates and masters. "Responsibility," he writes, "is a word devoid of meaning to all save those who have to bear it. Do not most mates think themselves smarter men than the masters? And yet masters are all made from mates! What is accountable for the change?" Lecky felt compelled to write Wrinkles because, prior to its appearance, most writers of navigation were ". . . mostly landsmen more accustomed to streets than straits, shops than ships." The book, he continues, was written as ". . .an endeavour . . . to awaken the interest of the student by making the subject attractive and to train his intelligence by bringing before him whatever is novel, striking, and instructive in that particular branch of his profession to which this book is devoted." For the modern student of the sea, Wrinkles offers a glimpse into another era. Written only 100 years ago, it is light years away from the present ease with which we solve celestial navigation problems using sight reduction tables. As such, Wrinkles has great theoretical as well as historical value. Chapter subjects range from "Lord Kelvin's Navigational Instruments," to "Composition and Resolution of Forces and Velocities," to "Sumner Lines," to "Systematic Errors in Altitude, and How to Treat Them." Some of the information is outdated but still of value. Take for instance a whole paragraph devoted to the stowage of the sextant: "Do not stow your sextant case in a drawer," he writes, "or in an out-of-the-way shelf from which a sudden jerk of the vessel might send it flying. Rather, get a brass band three sixteenths of an inch thick, and three quarters of an inch broad, let it be bevelled to fit three sides of the box a little better than one way up. Cover this with coloured flannel or washed leather and screw it to the bulkhead in such a manner that the sextant case can be dropped into it and remain secure in any weather and at the same time be handy for use." Lecky concludes the chapter on sextants with colorful and sage advice that carries well through the years. "There is a proverb," he writes, "you should never lend to any one your horse, your gun, or your dog. It applies to the sextant only more so." Unfortunately, this wonderful book is out of print. According to the librarian at the N.Y. State Maritime College, the last edition they have was published in 1959. I found my copy years ago in Gloucester at a used book store. Undoubtedly there are other copies around gathering dust. If you happen to find one, buy it. David Berson is a freelance writer and celestial navigation instructor who lives in New York City.


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