Adventures in Celestial Navigation

You begin by pretending you know exactly where you are. You begin with a fiction.

N: Proving Yourself Wrong

You begin by pretending you know exactly where you are.

You begin with a fiction.

On a chart of the inshore ocean—or on a blank universal plotting sheet you’ve laid out with penciled straight lines that represent the curved reality of Earth (another fiction)—you mark your position, a dark point on blank water.

You call this your DR position—for ded reckoning. You draw a semicircle above the point, so that it looks like an astonished eye.

Ded reckoning has nothing to do with mortality—the ded comes from deduced, what you think you know based on history: the history of the boat you’re sailing in. Where she (all ships are feminine, after Minerva, the Roman goddess of navigation)—where she was when you last knew for sure. How fast she has been moving since, and in what direction. You draw a line along your true course to reflect that projected path: five hours, say, at 6 knots equals 30 nautical miles of distance along that course line from your last known position. You don’t know yet what the tidal set and the currents have done to her. Or leeway—her tendency to slide a little sideways as she moves forward. As we all do.

So this point 30 nautical miles along your true course from your last position is the place where you think you are now. This is what you believe, but not too hard. Up until this moment, it has been the basis for all your decisions regarding the voyage, yet you are utterly willing to abandon it now.

You open your navigator’s toolkit, your magician’s bag of tricks: star finder, hand-bearing compass, chronometer, parallel rules, dividers, triangular protractor, nautical almanac, sight reduction tables, pencil, stopwatch, and the queen of all navigation devices, the sextant.

And you set to work.

Before you do anything else, you must observe the sky—not casually, like an idle passenger or a romantic dreamer, but accurately and with precision. Unless you’re shooting the sun—sighting on it with your sextant—in broad daylight, you must make your observation at dusk or dawn, in the crepuscular light of a day dying or being born —during what’s called civil or nautical twilight, depending on how many degrees the sun lies below the horizon. You search the sky in a certain compass direction and at a certain altitude, looking for some specific heavenly body, such as the planet Venus or the star Hamal, and recognizing it when you see it. Or else you work the problem from the other end: shooting it and, by means of its compass bearing and altitude, figuring out later which body it was—noting the time, down to the exact second.

Seconds matter. In navigation, time means distance in all sorts of ways. Four seconds’ error in recording time results in an east-west position error of a whole nautical mile.

You aim the sextant by peering through a telescopic eyepiece. The sextant does something very simple and very difficult: It measures the angle between the navigator’s eye and the celestial body being observed. It does this by rotating a mirror mounted on what’s called an index arm along a curved and calibrated semicircular frame called the main arc until the body being shot is reflected exactly into another mirror, level with the horizon, called the horizon mirror.

In simple terms, with the sextant, you create an optical illusion in your eyepiece: placing a star or planet or the sun exactly on the horizon—otherwise known as bringing down the body. You have to love the language—full of absolute metaphor. All the other calculations depend on this first one, so the sextant must be reliable, precise and accurate to a fine tolerance.

You have just augmented a convenient fiction with a precise optical illusion.

Then, through applied science, spherical trigonometry, simple arithmetic, the accumulated wisdom of master navigators long in their graves, a nautical almanac, sight reduction tables, and a little magic, you prove yourself wrong: You’re not where you thought you were.

You prove your boat is actually someplace else—if you’re a good navigator, not too far from where you thought you were. Half a dozen miles, perhaps. Enough to make a difference.

You prove.

In an age of endless equivocation, the denial of absolutes, the wholesale refusal to believe anything for sure, the new academics’ stubborn contention that all facts are relative, that nothing can be known for sure, that history is mostly a matter of point of view, not incontrovertible fact, you prove yourself wrong.

And in proving yourself wrong, you prove something else: exactly where you are.

It is not a matter of opinion. It is not open for debate. It is not arguable or biased by gender or ethnicity or influenced by national regimes or political agendas. It is not personal: You either miss the reef or you hit it. You either find the sea buoy that marks the entrance to your harbor or you pass it by in the night. You make landfall or you don’t.

That’s the beauty of navigation: It is unequivocal.

To set out from one harbor and arrive safely at a chosen destination is its own proof of success. And it carries with it the right to be at the new place—the place you found, without road signs or fixed highways. Hardly anything on earth is as exhilarating as sailing into a new harbor at sunrise after a nighttime passage offshore across open water.

Not long ago, we sailed into Cape Lookout Bight, formed by a sandy crescent on the North Carolina coast, just as the sun rose purple behind the eastern mare’s-tail cirrus and the water was studded with scores of floating humps—great loggerhead turtles come to mate in the protected waters under the lighthouse. We glided by them silently, and a few adopted our sloop as we anchored, and floated alongside us all day.

What is it like to sail on the ocean out of sight of land? That’s the question most often asked by people who have never been out of sight of land, except perhaps in an airplane. One answer: Navigating on the ocean is just like driving your car—if all the road signs were taken down and Earth’s surface were flooded to a depth of at least 1 foot so that all features and contours were invisible under a flat, glassy surface—or under a wind-whipped surface full of swells and breaking waves—with, of course, rivers and lakes and canyons remaining as deep as they are and all other obstacles—rocks, fences, tree stumps, ditches, railroad tracks and so on—remaining in place.

Finding the hidden roads, keeping from the submerged hazards, dodging tractor-trailers and trains and buses coming from all directions and passing you on all sides at varying speeds and with varying degrees of skill and caution and courtesy—without any headlights, if it is night —and using as your reference not easy-to-follow signage but the mathematics of plotting your course—that would be a like challenge.

Celestial navigators most often rely on the sun, and if they shoot stars or planets or the moon, they must do so in a narrow window of opportunity at dusk or dawn, when the bodies are visible but there is also enough ambient light to power the monocular lens of the sextant.

For the navigator, the world is a sphere with a diameter of 6,888 nautical miles. When you achieve a celestial fix on that sphere, gridded into degrees, minutes, and even tenths of minutes of latitude and longitude, you are fixed for that instant, the solution to a complex exercise in mathematics. You are the variable that has been solved for.

NE: Steering by the Stars

A common misconception is that the celestial navigator shoots a star or planet and plugs the sextant reading into a formula and violà! A perfect fix. But it isn’t quite so simple. What you find after shooting one body and working out the math is a line—what’s called a line of position, or LOP. You know you are somewhere on this line. And to make matters more complicated, that line actually represents a small segment of a very large circle.

Remember, we’re trafficking in fictions in order to approach reality

Imagine you are sailing around in utter darkness looking for a little island with a lighthouse on it in the middle of the ocean. You have no compass—and thus no idea whether that island is north or south or east or west from you. Then you spot it. The chart tells you that the light is a hundred feet high.

You know—don’t ask me how—that there’s an easy way to calculate how far away you are from the light: First you take the square root of its height plus 14 percent. The square root of 100 is 10; 14 percent of 10 is 1.4. So the sum is 10 plus 1.4, or 11.4 miles. But wait—you also have to add your own height of eye—height above the water. Say that when you stand on deck, your eye is about 10 feet above the water. So the square root of 10 plus 14 percent is 3.6. Add that to 11.4 and you realize you should be able to see the lighthouse at a distance of 15 miles in clear weather.

But since you don’t know which direction you are from the lighthouse, all you know is that you are somewhere on a circle with a radius of 15 miles, with the lighthouse at its center.

Now pretend that that lighthouse is a star and that a straight line runs from the star to the center of the Earth—an imaginary tower on which the starlight is mounted.

The point where that line pierces Earth’s surface is the geographical position, or GP, of the star—the imaginary island on which the light is located. Only this light is very high, so high you must measure its height by determining its angle above you with a sextant—remember, that’s what a sextant does—which will give you degrees, minutes and tenths of minute of arc. Arc translates into distance at a rate of 1 mile per minute of arc. Since there are 60 minutes of arc to the degree, the circle you would draw around the star’s geographical position based on the angle of that body to you would be hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles in circumference.

For example, if you measure the star at 40 degrees of arc, then its geographical position is 40 times 60, or 2,400 miles away from you. That’s the radius of the circle on which you are located, which must therefore have a circumference of over 15,000 miles (???? times the diameter of 4,800 miles).

Hence you must reduce the scale of the problem—reduce the circle to a segment. Reduce thousands of miles to a few dozen. This is why it’s called sight reduction. All the calculations and tables allow you to do just that. And remember the fiction that anchors all this: You began by pretending to know exactly where you are—your ded reckoning position. If where you think you are is at all close to where you really are, you have narrowed the large circle to a small segment.

In any case, once you have two sights calculated, you plot them as two lines that—if the bodies were separated by an angle greater than 30 degrees, and ideally greater than 60 degrees—should intersect. The point of intersection is your fix.

If you can shoot three stars or planets, even better: Now you have the classic triangle of a three-star fix, and you are inside that little triangle—a space about as big as a city block.

E: Celestial Baseball

So the celestial navigator fixes a position with reference to the stars, including our sun, and the planets; the location of the ship is reckoned in the context of moving but predictable bodies in the heavens. Those heavenly bodies have complex relationships with the ship’s tiny point of location on Earth—the sun, moon, each planet and star is assigned a geographical position for every hour and second of every day of every month and year: the point at which it would, theoretically, splash down on the surface of the Earth on its gravitational plunge toward the center of the Earth.

There is no fudging.

It is exhilarating and humbling to fix your location under the stars—a totally accidental use for the firmament, yet so compellingly precise that the imagination begs for the hand of a Supreme Being to have created such a remarkable instrument of absolute context.

Even the term testifies to this: celestial, as in residing in the heavens.

It would be like emerging from the steaming jungle and discovering a perfectly formed fossil baseball diamond in the wilderness of prehistory, eons before Homo sapiens prowled the Earth and the game of baseball was invented—with the pitcher’s mound exactly 60 feet, 6 inches away from home plate, the bases 90 feet apart, all the mathematical relationships true, waiting for the day millions of years in the future when mammals would evolve into prosimians and, at last, primates and humans, and a Civil War general would invent a baseball, a bat, and a book of rules to codify the mathematical and geometrical relationships into a dynamic and meaningful experience.

You’d have to wonder if that baseball diamond were placed there by design, and if so, by whom?

And if so, why?

Now look up at the night sky and imagine that discovery of order on a scale so vast even level-headed scientists cannot comprehend its scope.

The celestial navigator exists in perfect context with the universe —which is more than most of us can ever claim for even a brief instant in life.

SE: Errors and Imperfections

All the above, of course, assumes you have computed accurately and made no errors—a very big assumption. The odds are very good that your sextant reading is off by a hair. After all, you are sighting a distant object from the deck of a pitching boat and trying to mark the exact hour, minute and second of the sighting. You may have forgotten to correct for the two kinds of errors common to sextants, especially well-used ones.

You can misread the arc of the body—its angle above the Earth— off the sextant scale. You can mistime the sight, or neglect to corroborate it properly with Greenwich Mean Time—the universal clock located on the prime meridian, the 0 degree of longitude, in Greenwich, England. The tables by which you extrapolate your position require rounding off and then interpolation to correct for rounding off. You might forget whether you are dealing with true degrees or magnetic, or add a correction instead of subtracting it. You might make a simple mistake in arithmetic—forget you are adding degrees, which contain 60 parts, and do the math in base 10, as you normally would, and wind up in the middle of a continent.

If you have made such mistakes, you will find out, and usually quickly.

There are all sorts of ways to check your work.

One way is to turn on your GPS—Global Positioning System— and let the satellites judge your calculations. Until about the year 2000, the military deliberately introduced an error into the civilian GPS signal—to thwart terrorists and rogue nations possessing guided missiles—so it was accurate to only half a mile or so. And in the spirit of true American can-do, the Coast Guard spent millions of dollars every year broadcasting a correction. Now the signal is accurate to 12 meters—the length of a smallish racing yacht—but, of course, the Coast Guard is still broadcasting a correction, so that the corrected signal is accurate to 3 feet.

Three feet. The span of your arm. You can stand up, extend your arm straight out in front of you, spin slowly and touch your exact position.

Don’t mind the technology—once, the sextant was the most modern gadget on the block—and any honest navigator will use every trick he can to find his way across the blank ocean.

Or you can work out all your sights and compare—you’ll look at your plot and see one line that goes off on its own and doesn’t intersect the others, and you cast it aside. Working out that sight, you just went a-glimmering. Gremlins got into the works. The Imp of the Perverse.

Or you can let your gut tell you. The great circumnavigator Joshua Slocum, the first man known to have circled the globe alone aboard a sailing ship, always maintained he could tell which ocean he was in and what latitude simply by the color, feel and taste of the water under his keel.

Even I can tell from the surface of the sea when we’ve moved beyond 20 miles off shore, lost the continental shelf, or sailed into the Gulf Stream. Such information, the sensory residue of experience, is stored in your body—in your ears and stomach and eyes and probably even your blood, the way your immune system remembers diseases and how to survive them. The roll of the boat feels different. The color of the water turns from Atlantic gray to tropical aquamarine. The wave shapes are different, playing a different tune against the cutwater, as is the way rain squalls form on the horizon.

Sometimes the navigator at sea just feels an odd sixth sense operating—something doesn’t feel right. It’s not logical; there’s no science to the feeling—at least none we know of yet—but for thousands of years the great navigators trusted their intuition as much as their instruments, and contemporary sailors are no different. Whatever the instruments say, if it feels wrong, it probably is wrong.

Sailors who make solo passages across oceans must sleep from time to time, and they report time and again how they rely on intuition to wake them in the event of trouble. After weeks at sea, they become tuned to their natural context in a way that is scarcely possible on land. With no landmarks, no artificial noise or distraction, listening day after day to the soughing whisper of wind, the creak of rigging, the slap and chirrup of waves against the hull, they can recognize at once the slightest variation in pitch and timbre and tone. They acquire an intuitive, overwhelming sense of exactly where they are, like the Eskimo, who recognize the subtle and familiar variations in what to us would seem a blank expanse of snow and ice.

S: Divine Aspiration

Now, here’s the glorious part, the part the Knights Templars might have understood: Celestial navigation is an exact science, but it is also an art.

That is to say, the math offers a perfect answer to your position, but you are unlikely ever to achieve perfection in your practice of it. You will, as you get better and better, approach perfection. There is an unequivocally exact right answer, but you can navigate a lifetime and never reach it. The best you can hope for is an approximately right answer, equally unequivocal, approaching perfection.

In celestial navigation, there is an element of aspiration to the divine.

A very accomplished navigator will be able to fix his position within a mile’s range; an inexperienced navigator may be 5 miles off.

Once into a long voyage, a gifted navigator may place the vessel exactly where reality has her and be able to prove it.

SW: Magical Captains

In the great days of sail, the captain of a ship was a figure of awesome authority.

His word was absolute law, enforced by the petty officer’s knout, the master-at-arms’ lash and the hangman’s noose. In the British navy, which ruled the oceans from the time of the first Spanish Armada until the turn of the 20th century, the crews were made up of the sweepings of the assizes and jails and taverns—landsmen—along with seamen impressed against their wills from the merchant ships of a dozen nations. The captain remained physically aloof from these crewmen and often nearly as aloof from his officers. When the captain emerged from his cabin onto the quarterdeck, all officers retreated from the windward side to allow him private space. Except on ship’s business, they dared not speak to him unless spoken to. More often than not, he dined alone. The loneliness of command was more than a cliché—it was an essential social and psychological buffer: The captain might at any time order his men and his fellow officers into catastrophic battle in which a third or more would routinely be killed or mangled.

The contingent of royal marines aboard each of His or Her Majesty’s vessels was there as much to guard the captain and his officers from their own crew as to fight the enemy, and one marine always guarded the captain’s door with drawn sword.

Yet the crews rarely rose in mutiny—though on a ship-of-the-line, the main fleet battleship, they might number three or four hundred, including men shipped as replacements awaiting the inevitable deaths of scores of their shipmates, as against a dozen officers and 50 marines. For the captain was not only the legal dictator of their daily lives, their judge and jury when they committed infractions; he also held the magical power of the sextant.

Many officers could navigate, more or less, and the teen-age midshipmen—future lieutenants and, with luck, captains—were gathered every morning on deck for lessons in celestial trigonometry, passing around the sextant and working out their sights with chalk and slate. In later times, ships even had skilled navigators specifically assigned to them, as coastal pilots are today put aboard in shoal waters or harbors.

But the captain was the genius of navigation. A captain who could navigate well commanded the trust of his crew—even if they hated him. The captain held the real key to their destiny—whether they could find their way through storm, hazard and enemy fleets home to England.

C.S. Forester’s fictional Captain Horatio Hornblower—a composite based partly on two real-life naval heroes, Lord Horatio Nelson and Lord Thomas Cochrane—performs heroic feats of navigation in nearly every adventure. In one book, he is commanded to sail from England to the west coast of Central America without coming within sight of any land or any other ships—using only sextant and compass and slate board.

Think about that—the faith, the arrogance, that requires.

With his food and water all but depleted, he makes landfall exactly where he plotted it, exactly on time. As did the real captains Cochrane and Nelson, time after time.

On a schooner or merchant ship, the captain might be the only man on board who knew the art and science of navigation. To lose the captain to illness or death or mutiny—or madness, an occupational hazard—was to lose their way, literally, on the vast, untracked oceans of the world.

Christopher Columbus’ crew came close to mutiny on his first outbound voyage, not because he was flogging them—he didn’t dare— but because they lost confidence that he knew where he was going.

So the tools of navigation, especially the chronometer and sextant, took on a magical quality and were treated with the reverent care usually reserved for sacred relics: secreted in a chest in the captain’s cabin inside elaborately carved and inlaid hardwood boxes, protected from salt and sea and rough handling. Even today, if you buy even a moderately priced metal sextant, it will come in a hardwood box or a bulletproof valise.

Imagine the illiterate sailor with no education in astronomy or mathematics, little sense even of the world’s geography since he had probably never seen a globe, sailing along for weeks at a time with no land in sight in any direction. It must have seemed magical indeed that a man could put his eye to a strange metal contraption, scribble some queer numerical formulae on a slate, draw lines on a piece of paper, then tack his ship toward an invisible harbor, arriving there exactly as predicted.

A man who could do that, a captain, must be partly divine.

W: M. Thibault and the Greenwich Hour Angle

All my life, I have wanted to know how to plot a course under the stars.

Since my earliest days of reading Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London—who taught himself celestial navigation during a Pacific voyage—the sextant has carried a mysterious power. The trigonometry daunted me, though—the slide-rule calculations. Words like azimuth and intercept and horizontal parallax and meridian passage. I studied trig in high school, even studied calculus, but the principles eluded me. And other matters took precedence—I didn’t own a sextant, didn’t know anyone who owned one, did not intend to become a sea captain for my life’s work.

And anyway, by the time I became a sailor, electronic navigation had made the sextant obsolete as a primary means of navigation. For years now I have gotten along fine with GPS, which relies on a grid of satellites to locate a boat’s position. A unit that fits into your pocket can be had for about a hundred bucks. Entering a harbor in fog or in the dead of night, I can also plot the contours of the land, locate the channel markers, and steer clear of other vessels using radar—like the GPS, another fruit of the military-industrial complex.

But as I took to sailing on the ocean, I felt something of a fraud. It was time to do the things I had always yearned to do. My wife, Kathleen, bought me a celestial navigation class for Christmas. I finally had an excuse to buy a sextant and promptly sent away for one from a navigation supply house, along with a star finder and a radio-controlled clock that automatically sets itself to the naval observatory clock in Fort Collins, Colo., and is accurate to the second. I already had parallel rules, dividers and a hand-bearing compass—staple tools of ded reckoning navigation. I bought a nautical almanac and sight reduction tables, as well as a pad of blank universal plotting sheets and work forms for keeping the math straight while working out sights on stars, planets and the sun.

Before I ever set foot in the classroom, I read the textbook twice, taking my time—taking months, in fact. Doing every problem twice. Doing the difficult problems again and again until I got them right. The focus, the need to slow down and concentrate, was good for me. Celestial navigation, even reduced to formulae that I could mimic, did not come easily. There was nothing intuitive about it. It was an initiation into mystery, and you arrived at the mystery by numbers.

I found myself making simple errors of arithmetic over and over again. Mistakenly subtracting degrees, which contain 60 minutes, as if they contained 100. Entering the tables through the wrong coordinate. Plotting sun sights that were off by 50 miles. I knew they were off by that much because when I took them, I was standing in the driveway of my own house.

I read a paragraph about determining the Local Hour Angle from the Greenwich Hour Angle of the heavenly body, and my eyes glazed over and I heard a buzz inside my head, so I read it again, and again, and after a while it began to work—the way repetition on those foreign language tapes in high school gradually resolved into basic sense.

M. Thibault va à l’épicerie.

Mister Thibault goes to the grocery store.

To obtain Local Hour Angle, in West longitude subtract the ded reckoning longitude from the Greenwich Hour Angle of the body. If your DR exceeds the GHA, place a minus sign before the difference and algebraically add 360° to the result.

Translation: Since we know—and the tables tell you—the longitude of the heavenly body, to find out your own true longitude, you need to compare your assumed longitude with it. You will compare the sextant reading you took at this assumed longitude to the one you should actually have obtained if you were in fact at that longitude, and you will find this number by entering the sight reduction tables with the Local Hour Angle, which expresses that comparison.

To pass the American Sailing Association’s Celestial Navigation Certification exam, the student navigator must be able to do the following—among many other tasks:

  • Convert longitude into time.
  • Apply the corrections for index error, dip of the horizon, and
    total correction to convert sextant altitudes of the sun, stars, planets
    and moon to true altitudes.
  • Determine the latitude at twilight by means of the polestar.
  • Determine the approximate azimuths and altitudes of the navigational stars and planets at twilight.
  • Calculate the time of meridian passage of the sun.
  • Calculate and plot the lines of position obtained from several
    celestial bodies at twilight and thus fix the boat’s position.
  • Find the boat’s position using a running fix of the sun—that is,
    two or more lines of position from sun shots taken at different times.

The test takes the form of a simulated voyage across the Pacific, so that every answer depends on the accuracy of the previous answer’s calculations, which means you can’t advance to the next question until you have answered the previous question correctly. Every error compounds the next.

A mathematically inclined student can complete the exam in three hours. It took me seven.

NW: Ships in the Night

Navigation isn’t all about stars.

Most navigation is more worldly.

Sometimes navigation is basic.

You’re sailing, say, up the east coast from Charleston, S.C., to Wilmington, N.C., broad reaching on a starboard tack, so the wind is more behind you than in front, and you’re coming up on the sea lane for the harbor at Georgetown, maybe 40 miles offshore. It’s a black night, full of rain squalls and choppy, breaking seas running 6 and 7 feet, with a wind that has increased steadily from a breezy 10 knots to almost 25—just under 30 miles per hour.

You started off in the fairway of Charleston Harbor in bright sunshine, flying a spinnaker—one of those big, multicolored balloon-shaped sails. Now conditions are more challenging and, since there are only two of you on board, you’ve shortened sail and you’re sledding along under a triple-reefed main and a handkerchief jib, with the wind behind you and to the right. Off your starboard bow, you spy lights. Because the sky is suffused with water vapor, the lights twinkle, and the pitching and rolling of the boat—heeled at, say, 25 degrees—make it hard to sight on the lights with binoculars.

After a few minutes of hard watching, you make out three lights: on the left, a red light; on the right, not far from the red light, another red light over a white one.

Fishing trawler, you decide. A 50-foot boat crossing ahead. No problem.

With your handheld compass, you take a bearing. In which direction is it located, relative to your boat? Every two minutes, you take another. After 10 minutes, the bearing hasn’t changed a single degree, and you recall the simplest maxim of navigation: If the bearing of two approaching vessels doesn’t change over time, they are going to collide.

You try the binoculars again. The other vessel is closing, and this time you see not three lights but five. Two were obscured by the halos —what navigators call the loom—of the other lights. Now the vessel is showing the same red light on the left but four lights—not two— stacked vertically on the right: Red-white-red-white, in ascending order.

It is not a 50-foot trawler but an 800-foot container ship, and the reason it didn’t look very long on first sighting is the result of an optical illusion: The ship is heading to cross your path at an acute angle, so you’re seeing a foreshortened version of its hull.

You do some quick mental arithmetic. You are sailing along at 9 knots—a little more than 10 miles per hour. The container ship is doing over 20 knots. In less than three-quarters of a mile ahead— 1,320 yards—your courses will converge.

He will run you down—a vessel bearing down on you is always a “he,” from long nautical usage.

Your vessel is 32.5 feet long and displaces about 5 tons. The container ship displaces 50,000 tons and is seven stories tall. If you do collide, chances are very good he will not even know it. You and your boat and your sleeping crew will, of course, disappear in a lather of sundering fiberglass and twisted aluminum spars and roiling water. Whatever his bow bulb doesn’t crush will be atomized by his gargantuan propellers.

Distance equals time: You have about six minutes to get out of his way. On a sailboat, six minutes is an instant. Even if the container ship were to stop all engines at this exact moment, the great vessel could not stop in time to prevent it from crossing your path.

And that path is wide and fraught with hazard. Even if he misses you, the suction of a great vessel steaming along will draw your boat toward his hull. If you don’t smash into him too hard, you will scrape along his hull and might be sucked into the vortex of his great thrashing propellers. Even if he passes 100 yards off, he will throw a wake at you that can roll you onto your beam ends.

You call down the companionway—once. All you have to say is, “Ship,” and your crew, your buddy, turns out on deck at once from a sound sleep, dressed in foul-weather jacket over sleeping sweats. Your buddy is a good shipmate, which means that when you call down the companionway in the middle of the night, he does not question, does not hesitate, does not complain, but simply turns out on a cold, wet deck swiping the sleep from his eyes and already grabbing the right lines to do the ship some good.

You bring the boat hard up into the wind and go close-hauled— sailing as close to the wind as you possibly can. The boat leans over hard from the added pressure of wind on sails. A wave breaks over the bow; spume scuds over the cabin top and drenches you, and the ride gets suddenly rougher.

But the bearing changes, and it keeps changing, as the massive black hull of the container ship sweeps by off the port bow, close enough to hit with a slingshot. You can hear the great engines thrumming, hear the machine noise leaking out the open ports of her towering superstructure, see rows of buttery cabin lights.

On the VHF radio, in halting English, her captain hails Georgetown for a harbor pilot, repeatedly, and Georgetown doesn’t answer. He’s oblivious to you, as you suspected all along.

But it doesn’t matter now. You’re safe.

You just solved a very basic navigation problem. It is not a matter of opinion.

Her blunt stern moves off, piled three-high with containers; your sailboat shoulders across the big ship’s wake; your crew disappears wordlessly into the black hole of the companionway and sleep, and you ease the sheets and resume course, waiting for the clouds to clear off and the polestar to come out and the other stars to blink on, one by one in a perfect map, until they’re smeared across the firmament from water to water, and they dissolve into the orange loom of sunrise.

About the Author

Philip Gerard

Philip Gerard holds an MFA from the University of Arizona. He is the author of three novels and four books of creative nonfiction, including Creative Nonfiction—Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, and he teaches in the Creative Writing Department at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

View Essays

Leave a Reply