Thank you for your post. I appreciate your contribution, though I cordially disagree with your conviction.
Like all navigational methods, celestial undoubtedly has its limitations:
- It takes a relatively long time to produce a 'fix', especially when using the sun-run-sun technique;
- That fix will probably only be accurate within a few miles or so (which, it should be said, is quite sufficient for practical purposes);
- It requires measuring the altitude of celestial bodies, which are invisible in overcast conditions;
- Whilst sight reduction calculations are not particularly difficult, they can be tedious and silly errors are prone to occur (especially when the navigator is tired or seasick);
- And probably a few additional modest challenges that don't immediately occur to me.
All that said, groundings are generally caused not by systems limitations but by poor situational awareness. A vessel can be equipped with the finest, most modern electronic equipment known to man, and still go on the rocks if no one is monitoring what is actually happening ... it happens more often than it should.
There are many possible reasons for contemporary reliance on celestial navigation. It is certainly not "some sort of challenge/stunt" (which some might consider disrespectful of navigators like Bert ter Hart and Leo Gooden).
Using a sextant is fun! Sight reduction helps keeps one's arithmetic up to the mark. Celestial nav. exposes us to the wonders of the universe. Finally, making an expected landfall without the aid of GNSS is deeply satisfying, and promotes self-reliance.
Here's a link to a StFYC webinar that includes a recent documentary film about the above: Celestial (2020)
As acknowledged above, celestial navigation has its limitations. Provided only that one is aware of those limitations, there's no reason for it to be significantly less safe than any other form of ocean navigation.
The Marion-Bermuda Race has for many years (possibly since its 1972 inception?) offered a "celestial election"
yielding a 3% handicap (see Notice of Race
, and see generally the documentary film linked above). Whilst there have been a few accidents in that race - accidental gybes, etc. - to the best of my knowledge none have related to celestial navigation.
The (celestial-only) 2018 Golden Globe Race is a similar example. Accidents, certainly. Navigation issues, zero.
The alternative ('safer') form of navigation was unspecified, but is presumably satellite-based. GPS, GLONASS and Galileo are technical marvels but are certainly not foolproof, and people who blindly depend on them can go badly astray. The well-known phenomenon of "Death by GPS"
on land has nautical equivalents, Team Vestas Wind’s 2014 grounding on the Cargados Carajos Shoals probably being the best known.
1) I know of no specific examples of SAR being called out due to celestial navigation errors aboard a yacht.
2) I agree that inexperienced crew are always ill-equipped to judge the risks attendant with offshore or ocean sailing (the vast majority of which have nothing to do with navigation). In any event, again, celestial has not proven to be less safe than other forms of navigation.
3) I'm bemused by the suggestion that celestial navigators run an increased risk of causing "environmental damage, that might occur if wrecked, say, on a reef with a load of fuel". I can think of at least one example of that happening: viz
., the 1965 grounding of the USS Frank Knox
on the Pratas Reed (southwest of Hong Kong). On the other hand, there are multiple examples of GNSS-reliant vessels causing environmental substantial harm. A few cases, all from the US Navy to stay consistent:
- in 2009, the USS Port Royal went aground on a reef near Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, causing over US$7 million damage to coral;
- in 2014, the USS Taylor leaked 175 gallons of fuel from a damaged propeller shaft after going aground while entering Samsun, Turkey;
- in 2015, the US federal government paid substantial compensation to the Philippines for environmental damage caused to the Tubbataha Reef when the USS Guardian went aground after relying primarily on an inaccurate Digital Nautical Chart (DNC)® coastal chart;
- in 2017, the USS Antietam grounded on shoals in Tokyo Bay, causing a spill of 4,200 litres of hydraulic oil.
Again, the navigation system in use is essentially inconsequential. What matters is situational awareness.
I agree that crew redundancy is always desirable. Not just with navigation, either: ideally, everyone aboard should know how to reef and steer, maintain and repair the engine and the boat's various systems, provision and cook underway, operate the radar, obtain and interpret marine forecasts, deploy distress signals, provide first aid, etc.
Of course, not everyone has the inclination or time to learn all aspects of passage-making. With respect to celestial navigation, the noon sight for latitude is quickly learned and easily performed; that, plus a practical knowledge of DR should be sufficient for back-up navigators.
Celestially-navigated vessels might for whatever reason choose not to carry EPIRBs or other means of communication, but should in no way feel pressure to do so: that would be absurd. For one thing, most emergencies have nothing at all to do with navigation: piracy, health issues, down flooding up flooding, dismasting, etc. etc. For another, celestial navigators pay the same taxes as everyone else and are entitled to the same protection - such it is, offshore - as any other mariner.
In conclusion, we all have our own opinions and levels of comfort with different methods ... and that's entirely fine. Again, thanks for sharing your perspective.
Best wishes, Roger