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Celestial Navigation: 19th-Century Methods

A workshop in the history and the actual techniques of celestial navigation as it was practiced aboard American sailing vessels in the Age of Sail. Students will learn how it was done, especially aboard the Museum’s premier exhibit vessel, the 1841 whaleship Charles W. Morgan, by examining original logbooks and navigational calculations from the ship’s voyages, and participants will apply these same methods today. Students will learn how to use and adjust sextants and octants, both historical and modern, and will learn the classic method of finding latitude by “Noon Sun.” Participants will also cover in detail the “time sight” which was used to determine longitude from the 19th through the middle of the 20th century. Throughout, students will compare what they are doing with actual logbook entries and calculations in the collections of Mystic Seaport.

Weather permitting, participants 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 workshop will have the basic celestial navigation skills to cross any ocean using the sun, a sextant, and a few other simple tools. Good addition and subtraction skills are required for this workshop as well as a basic familiarity with angles as well as latitude and longitude.