A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Jackson McDonald
Date: 2016 Aug 30, 08:01 -0700
Summer is not yet over in the northern hemisphere. Here are some recommendations from my own summer reading list: two biographies, one novel, and an essay.
Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life, by Tamara Plakins Thornton (2016). Frank Reed commented on this book in an earlier post. Unlike earlier biographies of Nathaniel Bowditch, this is a balanced, well-researched treatment of his life and achievements. Navlist members will be most interested in his navigational works, especially the New American Practical Navigator, but he also turned his mathematical skills to banking, business, and even to the management of Harvard University. His analytical, rules-based approach did not always win him friends, but no one questioned his fairness or his extraordinary mind. In Europe Bowditch gained recognition not so much for the New American Practical Navigator but rather for his annotated translation of Pierre-Simon Laplace’s Mécanique céleste. Bowditch published this massive, multi-volume, annotated translation at his own (great) expense and distributed copies to a select group of American and European mathematicians and astronomers. Bowditch’s annotations, which were longer than Laplace’s original text, caused quite a stir in European scientific circles, which had theretofore dismissed the notion that advances in scientific thought could come from the intellectually backward New World.
A Short, Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse, Theresa Levitt (2013). This is a well-researched, highly readable biography of Augustin Fresnel, a French physicist who revolutionized navigation by applying more advanced optical principles to lighthouses, thereby extending their effective range several fold. Many lighthouses still use Fresnel lenses from the 19th century, though others now use electric air beacons. Of possible interest: The original, first-order Fresnel lens from the Cape Canaveral lighthouse has been restored and is now displayed in all of its glory at the museum adjacent to the Ponce de Leon Inlet lighthouse between Daytona Beach and New Smyrna Beach, Florida. (Comment: I am a volunteer docent at the Cape Canaveral lighthouse located within the highly restricted perimeter of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The lighthouse is nestled among the launch pads of the Mercury, Gemini, and Space X programs. If you ever want to visit, please let me know in advance. There are special security procedures that must be completed prior to any visits.)
That Good Night: A Novel, by Richard Probert (2016). A light, summer read with some heavy philosophical undertones about the meaning of a life well lived. The protagonist is an 84-year-old man, prematurely “imprisoned” in a nursing home by his ungrateful sons and their greedy wives. The old man plots his escape, leases a sailboat, and ventures forth --- with a private investigator on his tail. Lots of colorful characters. An easy, entertaining, thought-provoking read.
Alone Together: Sailing Solo to Hawaii and Beyond, by Christian Williams (2016). There are scores of books about blue-water passages, but this is one of the best I’ve read. Williams recounts his solo voyage from preparation through completion in a highly entertaining and informative manner. It’s a good essay and, along the way, the author imparts a lot of information about extended, singlehanded, blue-water passage-making. Most of the information seems to hit the mark, but I would disagree with him for relying entirely on the satellite gods for navigation (no sextant aboard because he had forgotten how to use it) and for thinking that his modified dinghy could serve as an emergency life raft.
My summer reading has also included more pages from American Practical Navigator, H.O. Pub. No. 9 (1966 edition). Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is one of the last editions of Pub. No. 9 that afforded full treatment to celestial and other traditional navigational methods before the widespread use of electronic navigation. It does cover Loran, however. My goal is to read the whole book from cover to cover. The most difficult part to understand so far has been the section on degaussing, a problem I will never encounter unless I buy a steel-hull boat someday, which is highly unlikely. Now on page 225, I’m slowly making headway and hope to make landfall on page 1524 sometime in 2017.