A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Don Seltzer
Date: 2014 Jan 13, 13:56 -0800
Jackson wrote: Patrick O'Brian's historical novels (the Aubrey-Maturin series) contain occasional references to navigation in the Royal Navy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Has a member of NavList examined these books to determine whether O'Brian's portrayal of navigation is historically and technically correct?
O'Brian portrays Capt Aubrey as an excellent navigator, with a strong interest in scientific observations. Aubrey becomes a member of the Royal Society, and writes papers on nutation and observations of the Jovian satellites. At one point,he attempts to implement Maskelyne's idea of a pendulum chair for observing Jupiter's moons at sea, with predictable results.
The noon ritual is described numerous times, with the quarterdeck crowded with the senior officers and their sextants, the young midshipmen and their quadrants. Besides the noon sights, there are frequent references to lunars, to shooting particular stars at night, and to observing Jovian moons (when ashore). I don't recall any sun sights at any time other than noon. No detail is provided as to the technique.
'On deck the church was disappearing in the midst of a universal excited buzz – glances at the captain, glances over the hammock-cloths towards the horizon, where a flash of white could be seen on the rise. The chairs and benches were hurried below, the hassocks turned back to wads for the great guns, the cutlasses resumed their plain Old Testament character, but since the first nine heads of Mr White’s discourse had taken a long, long time, almost till noon itself, sextants and quadrants already came tumbling up before the prayer-books had vanished. The sun was close to the zenith, and this was nearly the moment to take his altitude. The quarterdeck awning was rolled back, the pitiless naked light beat down; and as the master, his mates, the midshipmen, the first lieutenant and the captain took their accustomed stations for this high moment, the beginning of the naval day, they had no more shadow than a little pool of darkness at their feet. It was a solemn five minutes, particularly for the midshipmen – their captain insisted upon accurate observation – and yet no one seemed to care greatly about the sun: no one, until Stephen Maturin, walking up to Jack, said, ‘What is this I hear about a strange sail?’
‘Just a moment,’ said Jack, stepping to the quarterdeck bulwark, raising his sextant, bringing the sun down to the horizon and noting his reading on the little ivory tablet. ‘Sail? Oh, that is only St Paul’s Rocks, you know. They will not run away. If this breeze don’t die on us, you will see ’em quite close after dinner – prodigiously curious – gulls, boobies, and so on.’
One of POB's interests was horology, and there are numerous references to chronometers. Aubrey purchases his own Arnolds in the early books, Earnshaws later. Often the reference is to a pair of chronometers, where historically a trio may have been more likely.
Aubrey is also an accomplished astronomer, building his own small observatory at home, and grinding his lenses and mirrors with the help of friend Caroling Herschel. POB's own knowledge of astronomy is at the novice level. He had little notion of the ecliptic and how planets moved about in the sky. His observations of celestial objects should be considered poetic; often there was some subtle metaphor involved. POB also did not fully appreciate the relationship of the moon's phases to the time of tides. Several times he wrote descriptively of the rising and setting moon, while describing an inconsistent state of the tide.
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