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Celestial Navigation 101

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Mount Holyoke College News and Events College Street Journal Vista

Spring 2005 / Volume 10, Number 1

Celestial Navigation 101

While the crew took the role of teachers on the Bounty, when it came to the subject of celestial navigation, the tables turned. Two Mount Holyoke students, Cindy Dunn ‘06 and Natalia Stefanova ‘05, had learned about celestial navigation on a previous sailing experience, and instructed several other students and crew members in the basics of navigating by the stars. “Back in the days when the Polynesians sailed across the Pacific from Tahiti to Hawaii in wooden boats, they had no compasses or radar to help them. They knew where each star was rising every night and navigated by positioning themselves relative to the sun and stars,” Stefanova said.

SextantNow celestial navigation is done with a sextant, an instrument that measures angles between different celestial bodies and the horizon. Stefanova explained that celestial navigation has a steep learning curve. “Once you take the measurement, there are lots of tables to check and calculations to make. Back when the Bounty was sailing, they used a sextant but had none of the tables or charts we use now.” To enhance celestial navigation (and dead reckoning), the captain simulated a major electrical failure on board. “Twice we were able to use the stars to confirm our position. An accurate use of the sextant gives a more precise reading than radar,” said Stefanova.

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Copyright © 2005 Mount Holyoke College. This page created by Donna Cote and maintained by Office of Communications. Last modified on May 16, 2005.