Steering by the Stars

As we inched our way north, Aldebaran returned to our old friend, the trade wind belt. From the furthest point we reached in the south at 25 degrees latitude (Pitcairn Island), we worked our way back to 18 degrees (Reao) and all the way to our destination at 10 degrees (Fatu Hiva).

Navigational note: Every degree of latitude is exactly 60nm, so it’s easy to get a sense of the distances we cover when we’re going north or south. This math doesn’t work as well when moving east and west, because the distance of each degree of longitude varies based on where you are.

Besides the reliable easterly wind, the trade wind belt also has delightful weather. Fluffy clouds roll by in otherwise clear blue skies; occasionally a brief rain shower will cool things off, followed by a lovely rainbow; and the sunrises and sunsets are always epic.

We were blessed with clear nights to appreciate the enormity of the starry sky. Keeping tight on the wind as Aldebaran headed north, we often steered by hand. Instead of watching the compass like a hawk, it is more relaxing to watch the horizon and keep certain stars just under the headsail.

The brightest star in the sky, Sirius was visible after dark during Deena’s 4-8pm shift. Then, the famous Southern Cross kept Sabrina company off the port side from 8-12am. During Spencer’s graveyard shift 12-3am, he had the luxury of steering by Arcturus, a distinctive star that constantly changes colors.

During my 3-6am shift, while watching the stars and the sails, I was always alarmed by a white steaming light of a ship coming from the East…. But then I’d realize it was just Venus rising! In my sleepy state, I’d forget every single day; then I’d look at the clock (3:22am) and remember it was a planet, not a ship. Venus’ light is so incredibly bright in mid-Pacific.

As soon as day broke, it was much harder to steer by hand. The fluffy clouds shift in the sky, and the sun… well, despite being a star, it is a little too bright to stare at for long; besides we’re usually trying to hide from it with shade to keep us cool!

Photo: Besides the Big Dipper, which conveniently points to the Pole Star in the north, the most recognizable constellation is probably Orion. The three stars that make up Orion’s belt point (generally) to the bluish-white Sirius on one side, and to the orange-yellow Aldebaran on the other side. If you see Orion’s belt, now you always know how to find Aldebaran, the name-sake of our boat! This image comes from our favorite star book, called “The Stars: a new way to see them”; written and illustrated by H. A. Rey, the author of Curious George. Get a copy of this wonderful book when you can, it will transform your enjoyment of star-gazing. To make things even easier, get a modern star app on your phone like “PUniverse” or “Planets” which helps you orient yourself, and discover where the planets are.

One thought on “Steering by the Stars

  1. Couple questions?

    Watches: ‘Morning’ and ‘Late afternoon’ are 4 hour watches. while ‘Graveyard’ and “Early morning” are only 3 hours each. That leaves 10 hours, an odd number to split up the rest of the day. Is this because most of the crew are awake during daylight and watches need not be formally designated, or….?

    Traditional navigation: Are Spencer’s sextant sightings working well? Other than using the stars for relative headings without regard to the compass, have you tried long distance navigation that way? How about the Polynesian method of determining currents, for those who are so blessed, with the testicles?

    Stars & Planets: Do you find them as as bright on the vaporous sea as, say, high in the mountains, or on a moonless night on the dry desert? Many shooting starts, meteor showers, etc?

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