role of lunars today

Burch at the Helm
For the celestial
navigator who
has everything:
A challenge, that
when met, will put
you in the company of
Bowditch, Cook and Vancouver
ack when I had more
money and time than
I do now, I took up the
sport of flying. In the
process, an instructor
convinced me that to be a safe and
versatile pilot, I should take training in aerobatics. This led to some
exciting hours behind “the stick” of a
Champion Citabria, strapped into a
parachute with a cable at hand that
would release the entire side of the
plane with a single pull. It was a different kind of flying than I was used
to, and it made me a better pilot.
The aerobatics of celestial navigation is called “the lunar distance
method for finding longitude without time,” or “lunars” for short. And
now the instructor is saying that if
you learn lunars, you will become
a far better celestial navigator in
your routine work. On top of that,
you will be prepared for any of the
various Doomsday scenarios (e.g.
no more GPS, radio time signals,
computers or iPhones). In fact, with
a few special tables printed out and
stowed, you could navigate—with
sextant alone—to any point on earth
for the next 20 years, even if there
were no more civilization at all.
Granted, that may be overdoing it
in the back-up department, even for
a prudent mariner, but there is no
doubt that your routine cel nav will
shine in the light of your new skills
as a “lunarian,” with skills that can
be mastered sitting in a chair in your
backyard, without a view of the sea
horizon. Lunar skills are universally
considered the hallmark of the best
celestial navigators.
The opportunity to carry out this
technique in the traditional manner without computers has recently
become convenient with a new
publication of the Stark Tables for
Clearing the Lunar Distance and
Finding Universal Time by Sextant
Observations—Including a Convenient Way to Sharpen Celestial
Navigation Skills While on Land. This
book has rejuvenated this procedure
worldwide, and with it, celestial navigation in general.
Celestial navigation is a way to
find your latitude and longitude
using a sextant to measure the
angular heights of celestial bodies
above the horizon. It has been used
by mariners at sea and explorers on
land for 300 years, and is still used
as a dependable backup to modern
electronic navigation. You cannot get
an Unlimited Ocean Masters license
from the USCG without knowing
Blue Water Sailing • August 2010
routine celestial navigation.
Routine celestial navigation relies
upon accurate time (Universal Time)
to find the longitude of a position
(latitude does not require time). Advanced celestial navigators, however,
can find longitude without knowing
the time using the technique of Lunar Distance. In this technique, the
sextant is used to measure the angular distance between the moon and
another celestial body along its path.
Since this distance slowly changes
as the moon moves eastward though
the Zodiac constellations, it can be
used to find the time of day that is
needed to complete the longitude
There are several reasons this
valuable technique has not been
part of routine celestial navigation
for over 100 years. First and foremost, it is not needed as long as the
navigator has accurate time, which
is readily at hand these days. The
history of lunars is inseparable from
the history of timekeeping at sea,
because the achievements in astronomy needed to predict the location of
the moon accurate enough for lunars
came about at almost the same time
as the invention of accurate seagoing watches—the mid 1700s. It is a
famous story, made popular in Dava
Sobel’s book Longitude—a boon to the
public knowledge of navigation history, despite some poetic license and
struggle with details. But the invention
alone did not make it a practical solution. It needed testing (Captain Cook
did some of this), and most crucially, it
had to be proven that someone other
than the inventor (John Harrison)
could manufacture them.
The production and dependability
of the instruments was getting
The moon circles the earth (360°) in about 30 days, so viewed at
the same time each night, it moves eastward through the stars at
a rate of about 12°/day. The moon’s path runs through the stars of
the Zodiac. Drawing from Emergency Navigation by David Burch
ed out by the early 1800s, but they
were still very expensive, especially
since one was not enough to guarantee the right time. If it is wrong, you
don’t know it. Likewise, two are not
enough. To know the time accurate
to the second, over a long voyage
away from civilization, you need at
least three watches. This is still true
if you want to be independent of
radios and GPS.
I say “watch,” meaning a portable
clock, but I should say “chronometer.” A chronometer is just a watch
that gains or loses time at a constant
rate. The actual magnitude of the
rate does not matter, so long as it is
constant. With a known constant
rate and date set, you can always
figure the correct time. By the midto late-1800s, chronometers, though
still expensive, were in reach of
most ship’s captains. Chronometers
remained relatively expensive up
to the days of the Bulova Accutron
in the early 1960s, then the prices
started down. Now, essentially any
quartz watch is a chronometer, and
three top-notch, waterproof models
are less than $100. But they still have
to be tested, preferably over the full
temperature range expected. Put
them inside an electric blanket and
then inside a fridge for a couple of
months as you monitor their rates.
With good timekeeping practice,
we should not lose accurate time in
normal conditions, especially since
we have accurate time from every
GPS satellite, and there are numerous radio broadcasts of GMT, now
called Universal Time (UT). But it is
not unheard of, and prudent seamanship means considering things
beyond normal conditions.
All electronics are vulnerable at
sea. Watchbands are more vulnerable than watches in many cases,
which can lead to the loss of a watch.
Plus they take batteries. Do you
know how long your watch battery
will last? Do you take spare batteries
when you go offshore? If your watch
stops with a dead battery and you
replace it offshore, what time do you
set it back to? Does this turn your
three chronometers into two?
And, there is always Doomsday.
Those of us who thought Doomsday
was somehow more remote after the
fall of the Soviet Union are waking
up to smell the coffee. The world
has not evolved as we might have
guessed it would. Two days ago, one
nuclear power literally threatened a
neighbor with total destruction after
torpedoing one of its ships and killing 48 sailors. The concept of nuclear
proliferation and its dire conse23
curacy is about
+/-+ 0.1’ of arc.
Without much
practice or
good instruction, navigators
might average
three or four
times that
limit, or even
a bit worse. To
be successful
with lunars,
however, you
must practice
until you can
“Lunar distance” is the angle between the edge of the
approach the
moon and another celestial body along the Zodiac. The
sextant can reach out to almost 120°, though sights
limit routinely,
half this range or less are easier. The angular heights of
even using the
the bodies perpendicular to the horizon are used in the
sextant in the
analysis, but these values can be computed if an almanac
is available. See for lunar
awkward dicomputations and data. Drawing from Celestial Navigaagonal manner.
tion by David Burch
telescopes help with this. Precomputquences are more and more a part of
ing the lunar distance ahead of time
the daily news, not less. It is way too
is also helpful.
early to write off Doom.
There are navigators who do
lunars with plastic sextants, but this
takes even more special care, and
The main reason most navigators
average results are not as good as
do not use lunars is because they do
not need to; that is, if we rule out the with metal sextants. Put another
way, it would make you even better
even bigger reason—most navigaif you could do them with plastic
tors are unaware that the technique
sextants, and in any event it is a way
exists because it was not covered in
to see how the whole process works
any books they used.
without the investment of a metal
Navigators who are aware of
sextant. The author’s booklet How to
lunars and would like to learn them
Use Plastic Sextants ( is
have other challenges. First, the sperequired reading for this endeavor,
cial diagonal sextant sights are more
besides raising the general quality of
difficult than normal cel nav sights,
all sextant sights, metal and plastic.
which are always measured straight
As an aside to celestial navigators,
up from the horizon, and the results
must be more accurate. This requires another great benefit is that you will
learning to use the sextant to its very learn a new technique for finding
the sextant’s index correction (what
limits. But this challenge is part of
we call at Starpath the solar method).
the reward.
This is much more accurate than
The practical limit to sextant ac24
the conventional procedure using
the horizon. Plus, it contains a selfconsistency check because it measures the sun’s semi-diameter, which
can be looked up in the almanac.
This correction measurement is not
taught in modern textbooks that do
not include lunars.
The other issue has been the challenge of analyzing the lunar distance
to get longitude once it has been
measured accurately. The government tables that used to do this went
out of print in the early 1900s and it
is essentially impossible to use old
ones for modern sights. There are
computer programs and Internet
sites that have computed the solutions for many years, but reliance on
a computer or an Internet service for
a back up procedure is completely incongruous. Thus, there has not been
a logical role for lunars outside of
academic and historic study beyond
a select group of sextant experts who
use it to maintain their prowess.
That is, until now.
The Stark Tables are a modern
take on this venerable problem, but
as lunar expert George Huxtable,
FRIN, put it, “Captain Cook would
have relished using the Stark Tables,
had they been available to him then.”
They are an ingenious application
of the same basic methods of the
1700s, but easier to use. Doing all
the paperwork by hand, filling out
custom forms, you can go from
a measured lunar distance to the
correct time and your longitude in
about 15 minutes, without needing
a calculator. You can measure the
lunar distance any time of night that
is convenient, since you do not need
to see the horizon. The altitudes of
the bodies above the horizon (which
cannot be seen in the middle of the
Blue Water Sailing • August 2010