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Recolections for a long-time celestial navigator

Jan 1, 2003

In 1930 I was slated to make my first race to Bermuda. The navigator wasn't going to be able to make the trip, so I was signing on to replace him. I had never done celestial navigation, but my father, who always organized everything for my brother Olin and myself, arranged a lunch for me and George Mixter (author of Principles of Navigation). We had lunch at the Yale Club, and he made a lot of notes right there on the tablecloth. He said, "You can do it perfectly well," and that was the beginning of my celestial navigation efforts.

I didn't end up navigating on that trip, but fortunately the guy who did was really good, and I learned a lot from him. He would always take five or six shots, one after the next, and I got the time for each sight and took the sextant reading. That was as far as I went. The sights worked well, and we made a perfect landfall. That was my first exposure to it.

In 1932 I went on the next Bermuda Race. That time I did some navigating, and it worked perfectly well. I did sun sights, just noon to noon. The next year, in 1933, we sailed Dorade over to Europe. I was both skipper and navigator. I enjoyed it very much, and it became very easy for me.

Among other things, I was taking sights at night. A crewmember who was assisting me said, "You can't do night sights." To show him that I could, in fact, see the horizon at night, I had him work out my late night sights. They all crossed within a tenth of a mile -- almost perfect. I had good eyesight and was very happy with my ability to take sights. A lot of submariners did just that during the war. They would surface and take sights any hour of the night. It can be done.

George Mixter deserves a whole lot of credit because almost everybody in the Navy used his sight reduction tables. I always said that if you can't work your sights on the inside of a matchbox then you're just spinning your wheels. I never used standard forms. I used my own forms that I developed; and I always kept them so that I could look back at them before making ready for sea again. It was important to keep all the old sights so that I could see what I had done.

I used the 214 sight reduction tables (later replaced by 229) with the Air Almanac instead of the Nautical Almanac because I found it was a little less involved when we used the Air Almanac.

These little digital watches we have now are a lot better than anything we had aboard in those days. We usually had three chronometers (a collection of Elgins and Walthams) that had to be wound at the same time every day. We used to leave our clocks at Negus, an instrument store on South St. in New York (no longer in business). As soon as we got back from a trip, the clocks went back there, and they checked the rates. When we got out to sea we would always begin our own time checks via radio, just to be sure we knew our clock error.

I used the star finder to locate the stars, and I used to figure that the sights that I was working on were accurate for up to a quarter of a mile or so. I was using a Plath sextant then, an excellent tool. There was a good clock in Dorade's radio room, so I would take a sight and then, counting the seconds, run down to the radio room where I would mark the time. There was a light in the hatch, and that's how I would read the sextant. The Plath was easy to read and, in those days, I didn't need much light.

The moon was good to shoot. I hear people complain about moon sights, but that's just a lot of hokum.

I would have been happy to have a GPS back then, but I always used celestial navigation on all the races. In the SORC from Miami to Nassau, I would always find a way to get a sun/moon fix, and it was always on the money.

Celestial navigation may seem outmoded, but it isn't. If the damn electronics quit, I can still get within a few hundred yards of where I'm supposed to be. I think that if you go offshore, you should be able to do that. I know a lot of people would argue about that. They'd say that I was crazy.

Rod Stephens co-founded the famous Sparkman & Stephens design agency in New York City with his brother Olin Stephens and Drake Sparkman.


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