The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Q&A Which Sextant To Buy…If At All

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Question

AAC Member Terje asks [edited for brevity]:

We are planning to go full time voyaging in 2016 and although we have two GPSs aboard, my wife, who is the navigator, would like a sextant and so I’m planning to give her one for Christmas. Do you have a recommendation for the sextant I should buy?

Answer

An interesting question. I have to confess that I have not thought about sextants, or had my Zeiss Freiberger (made in the former East Germany) out of the box in 15 years, but it certainly served me well, back in the days before GPS. If you could find one of those secondhand it might be a good choice.

Does anyone else have a recommendation for Terje, or an opinion on the sextant he links to above? Please leave a comment.  Those with first hand, realworld, at sea, celestial navigation experience only please.

Buy Why?

Of course there is a larger question here. And at the risk of stirring up a lot of sturm und drangwhy buy a sextant at all? I wonder if you could not find things to spend the money on that would be of more use in getting you out there (and keeping you out there) voyaging.

Or to put it another way, is your boat already equipped with every single item that costs UKP800 (the cost of the sextant you link to), that is more likely, in this day and age, to keep you safe than a sextant? The point being that optimal gear acquisition to get out cruising is all about balancing risk and prioritization—no one ever has it all.

Yes, I know that GPS can die, or be disrupted by sun spots, or whatever, but really how likely is that? And more to the point, how long is the system going to be down when you consider how reliant the whole world is on it? And the Russians even have a backup, which an iPhone—an iPhone, for crying out loud!—can receive.

More Required

And even if you have a sextant aboard, if the unthinkable happens, will you have that year’s almanac and an accurate set chronometer? If not, you will be limited to finding latitude only.

Perhaps even more to the point, will you remember how to use the sextant and work out the sight? I’m not saying you won’t, but it is important to keep in mind that a sextant is only one part of being ready to navigate by celestial.

One caution, if you do decide to go without a sextant, make sure you have a really good navigation backup system in place.

My Take on Sextants

Me? Although we still carry my sextant since we already have it, I spent way too many years hanging on for dear life, trying to snap a sight of a momentarily appearing disk, while trying to avoid getting a wet ass, or worse still a wet sextant, to want to go back to those days.

Not to speak of the gut-corroding anxiety of approaching the killing north reef of Bermuda (before the beacons were there) on a 36-hour old doubtful sun line. Oh yes, then there was the fun of trying not to woof my cookies while sitting at the chart table working the sight.

And you all thought I was an old fashioned curmudgeon who would love sextants—have to keep you guessing.

A Hobby?

Having said all that, if your wife wants a sextant because she enjoys practising celestial navigation, then go for it.

What I’m saying, I guess, is that sextant navigation is now, like SSB radio or, for that matter, my addiction to photography, a hobby and not something we actually need to go cruising.

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