Understanding the night sky
Yachting Monthly|March 2021
You don’t need complicated maths or even a sextant to enjoy the night sky and use it for navigation, says William Thomson
William Thomson

One of my most prized possessions is a book, The History of Seafaring, Navigating the World’s Oceans, by the American sailor Donald S. Johnson. A treasure trove of priceless knowledge, the story shares our progression in wayfinding since humans first clambered into hollowed-out tree trunks thousands of years ago, and it has taught me that although celestial navigation is ancient, it is also timeless and equally practical today as it was in the days of Captain Cook.

While you could argue that universal access to global positioning satellites, atomic clocks and precision compasses has made celestial navigation irrelevant, another school of thought says there has never been a better time to learn astronavigation, because we can constantly check our results. And by no longer needing to rely on time-consuming methods like a noon sight to calculate our position, we can disregard antiquated techniques and develop a new system that works in symbiosis with modern technology, enriching our experiences. The purpose of this series is to explore how, sharing the techniques I’ve tested frequently on passages with my partner Naomi and our children Ottilie and Arva.

It fills me with a sense of wonder to think of how effectively ancient seafarers could navigate by the stars, especially considering they were working to a flawed system of the universe; geocentrism. Until just three hundred years ago, the prevailing thinking was that the earth sits motionlessly at the center of the universe while all the stars and planets orbit around us. It was not until Nicolaus Copernicus introduced his heliocentric model in the 16th century that the consensus started to change – but it took a long time to gather momentum, amid fierce opposition from the church. In 1615, Galileo was even investigated by the Roman Inquisition for supporting Copernicus and found guilty of heresy.

According to the church, heliocentrism was ‘foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the holy scripture’. Galileo was put under house arrest for the rest of his life and his work was locked away so as to not inspire others.

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