Celestial to Bermuda

Back when the Marion-Bermuda cruising yacht race was founded in 1977, everybody was required to use celestial navigation. The race formally sanctioned electronic navigation in 1997, but many boats still choose to navigate using the sun, moon and stars.

During this year’s race, eight entries in the 50-boat fleet navigated celestially, including my father’s boat, the Hinkley Sou’Wester 50 yawl Lyra, on board which we were reminded once again of the many difficulties faced by sailors in years past.

In addition to the basic technical challenge of handling a sextant, celestial navigators often face uncooperative weather, and this year’s race was no exception. On the heels of the 2009 race, where too much wind and heavy seas made sights difficult—if not impossible—to take, the 2011 race included three days of fog and stretches of no wind, which left the celestial class becalmed and blind.

Aboard Lyra, navigator Steve Bussolari had to rely on dead reckoning much of the time. But when Lyra arrived in Bermuda six days later, we were only 2 nautical miles off the GPS coordinates that popped up when we finally turned the instrument on.

Celestial racing classes like this provide a unique opportunity for sailors to uphold the customs and traditions of historic sailing. Using a sextant, mathematical tables and the stars to navigate the 650 miles to Bermuda makes what is already a great experience that much more rewarding.

For more on this year’s race, including complete results, visit marionbermuda.com.

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