Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Celestial Navigation 1 - Introduction

It was back in November two years ago that I was in San Diego with my family. An enjoyable trip, and made more enjoyable by the fact that while we were there the 'Star of India', the world's oldest active ship, was scheduled to have her annual jaunt out of harbour with a flotilla of ships. We got down to the harbour in time to see her return in full sail. It was a magnificent sight, all of those ships with their sails flowing, and being around the sea and ships always fills me with a great desire to chuck in my job and everything else and go sailing around the world. I've wondered a few times whether I wasn't born a bit too late and might have been more suited to a life on the coast or waves somewhere between 1500 and 1800. Of course, my reality chip soon kicks in and knock the stuffing out of my romantic notions with visions of scurvy, lice, and maggot filled bread.

Still, I can't help but admire the simplicity of some forms of life, along with the determination and hard work exemplified in those men and women who cut a path through life, mastering all the challenges before them and finding joy in harder times than the ones I live in. I'm also awed by their accomplishments in various fields, and one in particular captivates me. The skill of celestial navigation - piloting a ship around the globe using only charts and the heavenly bodies is both an art and a science that fill me with awe. Perhaps to the pure scientist it is a simple matter-of-fact affair, and to the artist it lacks self-expression. I think however, that it is with those who lie somewhere between the two that celestial navigation finds its true and full appreciation. The physical principles that govern the practice are reasonably simple, yet in its simplicity it must be accurate and consistent or else it will not work. It is a science that cannot be left alone to sit for a while, but must be combined with a man's will and with his discipline. It shows not only mental ability but also confidence and strength.

At the same time, for all the very capable and disciplined scientists in the world, I feel that very few of them, if any, would be found living such a life on the sea. The same is true for the pure romantic. The life itself is a hard one, involving much repetition, at times very harsh conditions, with outside forces often dictating one's actions and decisions and influencing one's choices. It suffers from a lack of some of the niceties of both life and the lab and would be, I think, quite unbearable to anyone who does not have both the aspect of the romantic artist and the disciplined scientist in his soul.

Those who seek the finer attributes of humanity, character, and those who can appreciate the beauty of this world in all its aspects, will find that they have more than enough room from growth and discovery in a life upon the seas. However, those who can only appreciate but have no discipline, who do not like to be pressured or influenced by outside forces, will not endure it. The pure scientist and the utter artist alike, will either avoid such a life, or will rot within it.

Getting back then to San Diego, after the ships had returned to harbour I took the opportunity to enter the maritime museum they had there. After rummaging through some books I found one which was a text book used in various naval training capacities to teach the practise of celestial navigation. It was a thin book, and looked clearly presented, so I decided to purchase it with the aim of learning for myself the disciplines and skills of those courageous and able seamen who had gone before. "Perhaps one day," I thought, "I may have a chance to make use of it." At least, I hope so!

Well, I haven't quite made it all the way through the book yet. My reading of anything tends to be sporadic, however, I have to say that it is perhaps the most spiritual 'non-spiritual' book I've ever read. It's title is simply 'Celestial Navigation' and having made my way through the first chapters I have to wonder whether its author, Tom Cunliffe, is not a Christian. Reading only the 'Foreword' and 'Introduction' I was smiling and inspired, and it is my discoveries there that I'd like to share with you here.

I plan post a few entries on this subjectm but for now I'll leave you with this introduction, and a quote from the introduction of the book. Read over all this and give an ear to what you might hear, you might be surprised.

J W Norie,
Norie's Practical Navigation (mid-nineteenth century) :

"NAVIGATION is that art which instructs the mariner in what manner to conduct a ship through the wide and trackless ocean, from one part to another, with the greatest safety, and in the shortest time possible."