Many years ago, during an Atlantic yacht delivery, I was watching a young Frenchman practice sun-sights for his forthcoming Ocean Yachtmaster exam.  I was curious as to how this ancient art was carried out. After watching for some days and recognising the number of books involved, their contents and looking at his calculations I was totally perplexed as to why anyone would want to practice celestial navigation in an age when we carry chart plotters and GPS on board! I decided celestial navigation was most certainly not for me and can confess I was never particularly good at maths; young Olivier’s work had turned me right off.

Roll on 15 years, I find myself in a new but somewhat familiar place. I’ve signed up to the Ocean Globe Race, a retro race, a race which aims to take us back to the Corinthian days of pushing boundaries, with sailors from all walks of life competing for the joy of crossing the world’s oceans. A pure, unsullied, true in spirit, race circumnavigating the world, however, without chart plotters or GPS devices, ouch!  Our only option to navigate is to take sights of the sun, moon and stars and mark our progress on paper charts. A promise from skipper Campbell and 1st mate Mike “it really isn’t as hard as it looks” and here I am, learning all about celestial navigation, and back to maths, but I hate maths!

Once he’d got over his shock at my news, Peter Crook, a sailing friend and modern-day practitioner of the old art, kindly leant me not one but two sextants to practice with, leaving one for himself: the first being a delightful old metal & brass Astra III Professional and the second, a lighter plastic Davies.  He gave me a quick lesson in the basics such as which way up to hold the sextant and I tried to pick up the rest in books; it was a mind-blowing mistake!  I quickly realised that I’m the kind of person who needs one-to-one tuition to get to grips with new and now old technology, enter Alan Denham of Falmouth.

Alan is passionate about celestial navigation, having taught it for years he has an excellent way of teaching that even I could grasp.  He explains the art beautifully and possesses a whole range of wonderful sextants.  After spending two intense days at Alan’s kitchen table, practicing many exercises he set for me, I was ready for my first sun-sight at nearby Praa Sands.  Returning to check my understanding of using the sextant, I was amazed that my calculations positioned me to within two miles of my actual position, “not bad for a first attempt” I was reliably informed, but not great in an island chain I thought…!

Feeling on top of the world with my progress and keen to practice more, I left Alans’s house loaded with used and blank forms to work out exactly where I was on the planet. I had books to order and ideas of which local beaches to practice from along with mixed advice on which sextant I should buy. I certainly was, but I was filled with confidence, I can do this and I will do this!

I waved Alan goodbye out of the car window, he shouted “Let me know when you’re ready for the moon and stars” – that brought me back down to earth with a thump!

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