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Celestial Navigation: 19th-Century Methods

June 13 - June 15

A fast-paced introductory workshop in the history and the actual techniques of celestial navigation as it was practiced aboard American vessels in the Age of Sail. We’ll learn how to take sights and work calculations, especially as done aboard Mystic Seaport’s premier exhibit vessel, the 1841 whaleship Charles W. Morgan. Examining original logbooks and navigational calculations from its voyages, we’ll apply these same methods to modern navigation. In this class, we’ll learn how to use and adjust sextants and octants, both historical instruments and their modern equivalents, and we’ll learn the classic method of finding latitude by “Noon Sun”. We’ll also cover in detail the math of the “time sight” for finding longitude. Throughout, we will compare what we’re doing with actual logbook entries and calculations in the collections of Mystic Seaport, bringing historical documents to life. 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 class will have the basic celestial navigation skills to cross any ocean using the Sun, a sextant, and a few other simple tools, drawn directly from the 19th century.
Requirements: Basic addition and subtraction, good familiarity with latitude and longitude. Recommended for ages 13+.