Navigating back in time
Few incidents in maritime history have received as much coverage and been subject to such public fascination as the story of the RMS Titanic and the desperate end to her maiden voyage across the Atlantic in 1912.
So it was perhaps no surprise then to read that Sir Arthur Rostron’s sextant recently sold for £66,000 in an auction conducted by Henry Aldridge & Son in Devizes, England. Rostron was in command of the RMS Carpathia on that fateful evening in 2012 and gained widespread acclaim for his actions, and those of his crew, in reaching the scene of the tragedy and rescuing over 700 survivors from the Titanic.
Educated in Bolton, England, Rostron joined the Merchant Navy training ship HMS Conway. His career is a reminder of Britain’s rich maritime history, serving as he did on some of the great passenger liners during their heyday; and also serving in the Royal Navy including service at Gallipoli during the First World War. He ended up as Commodore of the Cunard fleet and along the way received a knighthood in his own country and the Congressional Gold Medal ‘across the pond‘.
The press articles about the auction reminded me of the role of the sextant in the ‘old days‘ of navigation, including the first period of my seagoing career, deep sea with Blue Funnel and Glen Line. To today’s navigator the device probably seems impossibly antiquated, but back then it was an essential part of seafaring. The sextant I purchased in the early 1960s (a beautiful Plath) was said to have its own rich piece of history, having belonged to a German Naval officer during the Second World War. When I moved back permanently to the UK to join Sealink’s Stranraer - Larne ferry service, I sold off my sextant for some welcome cash at the time – with hindsight a very shortterm and ill-judged decision as it would have remained a wonderful memento of my time deep sea.
I often wonder if the dependence on today’s modern navigation systems and instruments will at some time prove an Achilles heel, given the increasing cyber-security threat and advancing risk of terrorism with the potential to cause chaos in worldwide transport systems. At any rate, the story of Rostron’s sextant offered a poignant trip back in time to how things used to be, before the advent of modern technology made the sextant virtually redundant (at least for now).
HAMISH ROSS, EDITOR