‘Constant vigilance!’

Guest perspective/Ben Emory

Navigating along the Maine coast has always been a welcome challenge of summertime, especially to the east of Schoodic. “. . . conditions change rapidly after passing [Mount Desert Island] bound east. There is more fog . . . The currents are stronger everywhere . . . and there is more tide,” says “A Cruising Guide to the New England Coast.”

I had this hammered home in 1974, before I had electronic navigation aids on a sailboat. We left Cutler on a windy, rough morning thick of fog, with a fair current pushing us rapidly to the westward out of Grand Manan Channel. We watched for the eastern cliffs of Cross Island, about five miles on our way. We were still looking for the island’s eastern shore when we discovered ourselves sweeping past the red nun buoy southwest of the island, two miles farther along our course. The current had pushed us much faster than we’d anticipated, in a lesson never forgotten.

Years ago legendary cruising man Alan Bemis, owner of the renowned Herreshoff yawl Cirrus, spoke about coastal navigation to a group of us young sailors in Brooklin, Maine. What stuck in my mind was his saying that if you plan to cruise the Maine coast, you’d better learn to navigate in fog, or you might sit for days waiting for visibility. My fascination with both piloting – as coastal navigation is more properly called – and with navigating at sea probably was born that morning.

During my first summer job as a “boat boy,” I was fortunate to learn a great deal, especially so because July in Maine that year (1961) was exceptionally foggy. I watched as the skipper kept careful track of estimated speed, and wrote down the time of passing every buoy. If we were under power in a calm and could not hear a bell or whistle buoy, he would speed up the engine and do a circle to create as large a wake as possible, then shut down the engine and demand absolute quiet. Almost invariably, our wake caused the sought-after buoy to roll enough to clang or hoot.

In those days, all we had for coastal piloting was a compass (hopefully carefully adjusted), a chart, dividers, parallel rulers, a watch, and our eyes and ears. Experience counted for a lot.

Ocean navigation at the time depended on knowledge of course steered and speed that was as accurate as possible, and on finding position from the sun and stars, which required knowing how to use a sextant, tables, and an accurate timepiece. Being able to navigate competently along the coast, or across an ocean, became an early goal. I took three piloting and navigation courses – in secondary school, in college, and at Navy Officer Candidate School. The biggest take-home message from any of these courses came from Frances Wright, Harvard spectral astronomer and professor of navigation. She’s an absolutely delightful character, for whom navigation was a hobby she practiced from the bridges of cruise ships, no doubt to the great entertainment of the ships’ officers. “Constant vigilance!” was Dr. Wright’s mantra, which can never be repeated enough.

She was also a respected author of navigation texts, one published soon after I joined the Navy. I had taken a great liking to her in college, and came to know her relatively well. As a result, she mailed me a copy of her newest book when it was published. She was so excited to learn from my thank-you note that it had reached me while my destroyer was at sea near Madagascar that she exclaimed about this to an audience at the planetarium in Boston – to the great surprise of a friend of mine attending her lecture.

I had the good fortune, during my last year on the destroyer, to be appointed navigator. This was at the time when the Navy was developing its Navy Navigation Satellite System, but had not yet distributed it to the fleet. Away from land, the ship and I were totally dependent on celestial navigation. Our ship was assigned to test the new satellite system. Aboard came civilian technicians and receivers for four electronic systems in addition to our nearly useless Loran A: the Navy Navigation Satellite System plus Omega, Decca, and the new Loran C.

We were sent to the Decca range in Exuma Sound, the Bahamas, where Decca accuracy was reportedly plus or minus 34 feet, the best attainable at the time. The civilian technicians worked away at comparing the position fixes from the various systems, while I carried out my navigation duties in the normal manner: star sights at dawn and dusk; sun sights during the day, sky conditions permitting. One lovely Bahamian day, I was on the bridge wing, taking a noon sight with my sextant. I sensed someone walking up to my elbow. When I took the sextant down and turned, there stood one of the civilian technicians shaking his head. “Here you are with all the world’s most sophisticated electronic navigation equipment on this ship,” he exclaimed, “and you are still navigating like Christopher Columbus.”

Back in civilian life, I continued trying to keep my hand in as a celestial navigator. I also found that skippering a sailboat round-the-clock at sea can be very tiring, and that help from others in taking sights reduced sleep deprivation. I introduced two frequent shipmates to celestial navigation: my cousin Denny Emory and my friend and Bar Harbor attorney Nat Fenton.

Both went on to make themselves skilled, navigating many miles at sea. Nat, in fact, navigated no less than five Marion to Bermuda Races for me. The Marion Bermuda Race in its earlier years required celestial navigation, despite the advent of the new electronic systems, the use of which was prohibited until closing on the dangerous reefs that lie off Bermuda’s north coast. That celestial navigation was a dying art was brought home to me in 1995, the last time we did the race. Fellow owners and skippers reported difficulty finding people to navigate. With both Nat and Denny on board, three of the six of us were competent celestial navigators. I had not realized how unusual we were until I heard competitors’ surprise that one boat was carrying so much experience.

I hated to see the art die, but electronic navigation devices, including radar and modern chartplotters, have made navigating, including along the Maine coast, far easier – and, admittedly, safer. Many boat owners used to lack the confidence in their traditional navigation and piloting skills to cruise Downeast. Groping through fog with just a compass, chart, and perhaps a speedometer was just too much of a challenge and scary for many.

More people now dare enjoy this coast, but inexperience may cause some to underrate remaining risks. Even with experience, we all can still make mistakes. In recent years, more than once I have put our sloop West Wind up on ledges. Fortunately, other than scuffed lead on the keel, only my ego has been bruised. Yes, “constant vigilance” remains the watchword.

Despite electronic wizardry I wonder whether teaching young people at least how to take noon sights of the sun to determine latitude could be a useful part of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education. It might help develop interest in and understanding of geometry and astronomy as well as latitude – and, importantly, latitude’s relationship to species’ resilience in the face of a warming climate.

Using a sextant would also provide broadening exposure to our maritime history and heritage. Noon sights do not require accurate time or the use of complex sight reduction tables. One simply measures with a sextant the highest angle that the sun reaches above the horizon before it starts its decline toward the west. Through simple arithmetic based on easily explained geometry, one can determine latitude.

The Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park hosts STEM education programs, and I have suggested that noon sights could be useful parts of some curricula. Schoodic Point faces open water to its south, giving an uninterrupted horizon in the direction toward which noon sights are taken. The solid ground of the parking lot provides a perfect spot for beginners, with inexpensive plastic sextants, to determine their latitude.

Then, perhaps, the students could go afloat for the greater challenge of measuring sextant angles accurately from a boat bouncing in waves. They might return ashore not only intrigued, but with enhanced understanding and appreciation of our planet.

Ben Emory – of Bar Harbor and Brooklin, Maine – has decades of experience afloat. When not on the water, he has been deeply engaged in land conservation, professionally and as a volunteer. He has previously published articles in “Northern Woodlands,” “Maine Boats Homes & Harbors,” “Cruising World” and “Yachting.” His book, “Sailor for the Wild: On Maine, Conservation and Boats,” will be published by Seapoint Books in May 2018.