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Celestial Navigation: 19th-Century Methods

This is a weekend introductory class in basic celestial navigation emphasizing the actual historical methods that were used in the Age of Sail, especially aboard whaling vessels like the Charles W. Morgan. Students will learn real navigation skills and will be able to take sights to determine latitude and longitude using traditional mathematical tables.

Attendees will learn how to use and adjust sextants and octants, both historical instruments and their modern equivalents. The class covers the classic method of finding latitude by “noon sun” and students will also learn in detail the math of the “time sight” which was used to determine longitude from the 19th through the middle of the 20th century. Throughout the class, students will compare what they’re doing with actual logbook entries and calculations from the Museum’s collections. Weather permitting, students will have opportunities to make actual sextant observations.

This is real navigation, not just a class “about” navigation. Fast and intense, students who complete this weekend class will have the basic celestial navigation skills to cross any ocean using the sun, a sextant, and a few other simple tools.

Requirements: good math skills and especially a familiarity with the basic geometry of angles, including degrees and minutes of arc. A familiarity with 24-hour time (16:00 is 4:00 p.m.). A good understanding of latitude and longitude on the globe. Unlike the Planetarium’s introductory class, this course offers a more historical and more mathematical approach to celestial navigation.

Instructor: Frank Reed of Reed Navigation