Why Celestial Navigation

Why Celestial Navigation?Celestial Navigation is the art and science of navigating by the stars, sun, moon, and planets, and is one of the oldest of human arts. With the rise of radio and electronic means of finding location – especially with the increasingly popular GPS, based on satellite transmissions that can tell us our latitude and longitude within feet – knowledge of celestial navigation has experienced a precipitous decline. So why should anyone study it? Your webmistress believes that if you have to ask, well…. and anyway, as that great sage Bob Weir once said, “You ain’t gonna learn what you don’t want to know.” But if you want reasons, here are a few:

Understanding navigation; emergency and back-up
Perspective on life


Understanding Navigation

I feel the same way about navigation as I feel about computer use. People who came up to computers and the Web through DOS or Unix, and the earlier form of the Internet, or those who through experience or trial and error have learned just about everything that needs to be done on their computers, can trouble-shoot problems a dozen different ways. Those who can only point and click, or follow cookbook instructions exactly one way, are at the mercy of the people on the other end of the computer help lines. I have met people who use only GPS and would be totally lost without it. I have nothing against GPS and would not go offshore without it, but it could be a problem for emergencies – electronics go out, batteries die, things get wet, etc. – and if you are a big reader of sea and sailing stories, you know people’s lives have been saved by their knowledge of celestial navigation. But those kinds of emergencies are rare, and a better argument might be that some knowledge of celestial navigation makes you a better sailor, because you understand what’s under the surface and can solve problems more than one way.


Your webmistress spends as much of the summer as she can on a little Maine island (don’t ask, I’m not telling) where life is really the way it should be. People become their true selves once more, and the reason is community in the fullest, truest sense of the word. Part of being a community is being interdependent and part of that is being self-reliant. This isn’t a paradox; people self-reliant in different ways can give their gifts back to the community. Now, I am not saying that anyone there wants or needs celestial navigation, but there is a real respect for traditional arts, crafts, and techniques. There are still men (I’m not being sexist, but they are mostly men) on the island who remember when celestial navigation was all there was, and did it in the Navy and Merchant Marine, and there is still interest and respect for an art that calls upon us to regard the heavens with intimate eyes rather than passing glances.

Many traditional arts – weaving, 19th century photo techniques, pottery, etc. – are still practiced, and there are thousands of resources available for them. But celestial navigation – one of the oldest of the traditional arts – is considered abstruse and outdated, like a manual typewriter. We’ll never return to the time when the Captain was considered to be the high priest of a ship, with near-mystical powers and mysterious instruments for ascertaining a ship’s location (this high level of closely-guarded skill and education was undoubtedly a factor in keeping mutinies down!), but it would be a tremendous loss to have this art die out.


OK, we all find our fun in different places, but to my mind solving the navigation problems in the back of Ocean Navigator magazine is a lot more fun and a lot more satisfying than a lot of other past-times (but then I’m weird. I admit to getting a kick out of certain really elegant chess games, and while taking a grad course in Philosophy of Mathematics, I remember the day I finally understood Godel’s Proof to be a rollicking good time. Your webmistress realizes she can’t be out sailing ALL the time). Plus it got me reading about all kinds of things, from star-lore to the history of calendars and time-keeping to ancient Greek and Egyptian math, astronomy, and architecture – and paying closer attention to the literature I always loved. It’s the kind of passion that opens you up to all kinds of miracles and wonders of the natural world, from which so many of us have become alienated, and our shared past.

Perspective on Life

It’s hard to worry about what Russian writer Osip Mandelstam called “the fleas of life” when you look up at the night sky. Few things make me feel, about some petty problem, or even some large ones, “this too shall pass,” as much as considering the sky. Some people think God’s answer to Job’s suffering at the end of the Book of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures isn’t much of an answer – considering the Pleiades isn’t exactly what we were looking for – but you don’t know until you’ve tried meditating on the stars. (Theologians and others, you don’t need to email me on this – I already know there is much more to God’s answer).

This is going to seem a stretch to some, but to me celestial navigation is not only an end, a tool, but something that in the Middle Ages they called a sign. It both is what it is, and points beyond itself. The wayfinders of the Pacific Islands understood this. I don’t think it merely provides metaphors for life; navigation IS our life. It’s what we have to do, in every area: we have to find ourselves physically, orient ourselves mentally and emotionally, and try to find a star to steer by spiritually, if we aren’t going to be tempest-tossed with no moral direction. Celestial navigation and sailing as a whole provide a wealth of wonderful images and language to enliven the way we speak about, and understand, the direction of our lives.


There aren’t many things as breath-takingly beautiful as the night sky, especially seen from a place where there is little light pollution. In fact, it’s breath-giving. (And speaking of pollution, there is some peace in knowing that the far reaches of the stars is one place we humans haven’t left our grubby fingerprints, other than a few pieces of clunky hardware that may never get out of the solar system). Also, there is tremendous satisfaction in being able to truly place ourselves in the celestial coordinate system…our own little horizon/zenith moving and changing in the interlocking wheels of the celestial coordinates. You don’t have to believe in astrology to feel major awe when you get your eyes out of the dirt and up to the “eternal beauties,” as Dante puts it, dove gioir s’insempra —- where joy makes itself eternal (“in-always-itself forever” – Dante was not above making up new words if he needed to).

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