Celestial or Astro Navigation: is it a matter of Culture?

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Speakeasy
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Celestial or Astro Navigation: is it a matter of Culture?

Postby Speakeasy » Thu Nov 16, 2017 1:33 pm

Notice to the Reader: This post is directly related to the learning of languages because it discusses, tangentially, how the different terminology for navigating on the high seas employed by speakers of English (American, British, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian) was either a matter of colonial heritage or of independent development. It also discusses the “cultural” aspect of the design of equipment or the development of solutions to a common problem.

jpazzz wrote:Hello Speakeasy, What I kept thinking of as I read your description of this last course was the beautiful Longines seconds setting twenty-four hour dial watch I used many years ago in Celestial Navigation. (As a Canadian, did you call it Astro as our British cousins do or Celestial as Yanks do?)... Cheers, John

During the period that I served in the RCN, many of the traditions, customs, practices, and terminology had been adopted from the RN. I had the pleasure of crossing paths with a number of RAN and RNZN personnel who confirmed that they shared a similar heritage. This included instruction manuals on navigation and seamanship that had been developed by the RN. So, for the purposes of the RCN, navigating by the celestial bodies was referred to as Astro Navigation. However, when I returned to civilian life, which included sailing on the Left Coast of Canada (an insider’s reference to Vancouver, B.C.), I noticed that most ocean sailing enthusiasts referred to the practice as Celestial Navigation or, to a much lesser extent, Ocean Navigation, both which I believe were derived primarily from American usage. A small example in the differences of terminology would be the use of “Observed Position” which was notation used on the oceanic charts by the RN, RCN, RAN, and RNZN for which, if I remember correctly, the USN employed the term “Fixed Position” and I distinctly recall my instructors at the Fleet School haughtily referring to the USN usage as an error of form (sniff, sniff!).

The RCN’s heritage from the RN included numerous items of ancillary equipment such as navigation instruments (probably developed during the Victorian era, if not earlier). Many of these were made of hefty bronze castings having dangerously sharp edges (doubtlessly designed to serve as close-approach weapons for the repelling of boarders) which, despite their truly impressive mass, were quite prone to misalignment, a problem which had a direct effect on the precision of the “plot” or “plotted position” per RCN terminology. My experiences included contact with some members of the NATO Fleet, giving me an opportunity to compare equipment and practices.

My preferences were for American or French navigating instruments; theirs were invariably more practical and, despite their lightness, they were actually more robust than the RCN’s heavy brass instruments. Besides, which would you prefer being launched in your direction during rough seas, a thin piece of plastic or a substantial brass casting possessing a knife-like edge? The French instruments were always the most elegant, possessed of refinements increasing both their precision and their esthetic appeal: I’m being quite serious here! I found the Italian instruments to be similarly appealing to the eye, however to me, they seemed to include features that rather “missed the point” of plotting one’s position on an maritime chart. By far the most accurate, the most precise, and the most highly-engineered navigating instruments were those designed for use by the Deutsche Marine. While I appreciated the minute adjustments of which these German-made instruments were capable, I found myself questioning their practical value; to me, given that one’s position might be described as being “a 1,000 miles from nowhere ... plus or minus 10 miles”, the additional plotting accuracy of “plus or minus 3 metres” was, well, you know!

It was through my contact with my fellow Navigating Officers of the NATO Fleet and our exchanges of practices and equipment that it first occurred to me that “culture” could inform an approach to a common problem: please try to understand that I was a young man, that I had been raised at a time during which the culture of my homeland was, for all practical purposes, one of two more-or-less homogenous solitudes, that travel was for the privileged, that the education system routinely reinforced the stereotypes of the period, and that while my world view was limited, it was expandable and all that I needed was some exposure. Nevertheless, merely through comparing the different approaches to the common question “where are we?”, one which had plagued sea-going peoples for millennia, I began to perceive a “cultural” element. That is, the very culture itself seemed to inform how a problem was perceived and the culture itself was the ultimate driver to the solution. There is a cultural element that influences the value that we place on matters such as practicality, precision or accuracy, refinement or aesthetic appeal and, at the tender age of twenty-three, I discovered this for the first time in the different approaches to Astro (or Celestial) Navigation. I was as astonished as I was fascinated!

Has anyone else experienced a similar "awakening"?
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MorkTheFiddle
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Re: Celestial or Astro Navigation: is it a matter of Culture?

Postby MorkTheFiddle » Thu Nov 16, 2017 5:14 pm

Once in a discussion about drug testing with a colleague from India, I asserted that though a test existed for detecting the use of marijuana, no test can detect the use or abuse of alcohol after the alcohol disappears from the blood. Yes, he responded, but that has a cultural cause. In other words, if our culture wanted a test for alcohol use, it would have such a test. True or not? i don't know, but interesting to think about.
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Tu sabes cuando sales pero no sabes cuando regresas.

Speakeasy
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Re: Celestial or Astro Navigation: is it a matter of Culture?

Postby Speakeasy » Thu Nov 16, 2017 5:38 pm

MorkTheFiddle wrote: ... In other words, if our culture wanted a test for alcohol use, it would have such a test...
I think that your colleague hit the nail on the head (admittedly weak pun intended): "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." - Abraham Maslow, American psychologist.
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jpazzz
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Re: Celestial or Astro Navigation: is it a matter of Culture?

Postby jpazzz » Fri Nov 17, 2017 6:59 am

Hello, It is a mere quibble, but my memory and a very quick glance at Dutton's suggest the USN calls those spots on a chart fixes (single word). Apropos your comments on RN derived navigational ironmongery (bronzemongery?) the late Capt John Coote, one of the legendary RN navigators, used an inexpensive, light plastic Jepperson plotter (originally devised for air navigation in Englewood, Colorado). I copied him shamelessly. For a very long time now, my own manipulations of sidereal time, the almanac, plotters, usw, have been reduced to such esoteria as, "Let's sail down to Great Lakes and back."

Cheers,
John
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Speakeasy
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Re: Celestial or Astro Navigation: is it a matter of Culture?

Postby Speakeasy » Fri Nov 17, 2017 2:19 pm

Latitude Sailing
I recall reading, many years ago, that Viking navigators developed their own version of “latitude sailing” but, quite understandably, did not have a theoretical explication for how the process worked. It was quite simple, really! They had observed that, in their home port, the sun’s elevation above the horizon at noon varied seasonally. So then, holding a simple staff at arm’s length, they marked the sun’s elevation with a series of notches, each of which represented a season. They either marked the same staff, or used a collection of them, with the sun’s elevation at their different “ports of call”, which might include significant islands, estuaries, channels, et cetera. They would then sail in a straight line, east or west, (along the latitude) by keeping the sun at noon at the elevation as prescribed by a mark on the staff and, having covered a certain distance, would turn either north or south and sail to the next latitude in a zig-zag fashion until they reached their destination. Other navigational clues were available such as landfalls, the colour of the sea, ocean swells, the star polaris, et cetera. It was crude, but it worked!

Counter-quibble
What is “fixed” on the nautical chart, is the “position” of the vessel with reference to some known object, by observation and/or by calculation whereas the term “fix” is merely an abbreviation of “fixed position” (sniff, sniff!) The British Admiralty took the position that a “fixed position” should refer to a vessel’s position when determined with respect to permanent, immovable, earthly points of reference (points on the coastline, structures, et cetera) whose geographical positions had been surveyed and marked on the chart. With a view to distinguishing the relatively reliable “fixed position” from one which is determined through the observation of a moveable celestial body (sun, moon, star), the measurement of time, and mathematical calculation, the British Admiralty adopted the term “observed position”, the point being that the latter is demonstrably less precise, less accurate, less reliable* (an error of time can displace the plotted position by tens, if not hundreds, of miles without this being apparent on the chart (again: sniff, sniff!). I would assume that US Navy believed this to be a distinction without a difference. Nevertheless, although I received my navigation instruction at the RCN Fleet School, based on the British Admiralty manual of Astro Navigation, I tended to support the US Navy’s point of view.

*Observed Positions are Less Reliable
At the time that I served, although the RCN Navigating Officer was responsible for fixing the ship's position via celestial navigation several times a day, as a matter of practice, all Watch Officers were required to make their own calculations and to review their results with the Navigator. I recall that one of colleagues regularly "dismissed" the importance of the precision of the time-keeping instruments that were used to support the determination of longitude. With a view to demonstrating the importance of the accurate determination of time, I asked him to induce a fixed "time error" into his calculations which was to simulate a "watch error", which he dutifully did. The resulting plotted position, with all position lines beautifully crossing, placed the ship in the middle of North Africa. Was the British Admiralty's terminology correct or was it a distinction without a difference?
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