In my ‘Message From The Bridge’ in June’s edition of Sea Breezes I spoke about the sale of Sir Arthur Rostron’s sextant and then went on to talk about my own sextant – a Plath, which I sold when leaving the deep sea trades.
This naturally led me on to talk about dependence on today’s modern navigational systems. Having read June’s Sea Breezes, an old shipmate and great friend of mine, Captain Ian Hale responded with a very interesting email, a part of which I print below.
“Just picked up this months Sea Breezes. Liked your editorial remarks about your sextant. I remember your Plath well on Telemachus as you kindly allowed me to use it for stars on the 4-8 watch. Lovely instrument, light but solid, and such a good telescope and mirrors. I always enjoyed celestial navigation, but the Plath made finding stars so easy.
I remember in conversation with you about our respective sextants (mine was a new “Hezzanith”) that I might have bought yours had it been available when I got mine. The Middie’s department told me they had two for sale and when I got there with the cash in my sweaty little hands, only one was actually in the office, so I got it. I think the other one was the one you bought – described to me as “an old German one” – for the same price. I still have mine.
No point in obsessing about things, but it is sad that simple skills are being lost, and potentially dangerous. Over the years as a SIRE inspector, I saw very few ships where the full set of navigation techniques were used, with even compass errors beyond very many navigators. One notable exception was a new BP LNG ship I visited at Chioggia. The female Second Mate had the bridge properly organised and harried the whole lot of the deck officers and the three cadets to take and record daily sights. She had the Almanac properly organised with the top corner of the used page torn off, a Height of Eye table posted, and the total correction tables copied and posted (all very, very rare items). She had even got the Met Office to provide the full Observing ship kit, so she was the only one in 650 ships which was an Observing ship.
The only ships that I had seen this on for the past 30 years had been my own. The Chief Engineer was of a similar mind. The Engine Room was equipped with two fully equipped workshops, so he encouraged his three cadets to download plans of simple machines off the internet and make them from stock metal, requiring the machining of lumps of steel and brass, the fabrication of screws and fine finishing and assembly. He showed me two of the efforts – a single oscillating cyclinder steam engine and a Stirling engine. Given that the lads had very little practical workshop experience, the results were excellent. I wonder if those young men now have any idea that they were unique?”