on 3 March 2014
A great book - part love-letter to the sextant, part gripping re-telling of some of the greatest sea-adventures of all time. And if this wasn't enough, the text is interwoven with the author's own account of his first trans-Atlantic voyage in the 1970s (well before GPS) - learning how to sail and how to navigate by the stars. It reminds us all how much we all owe to this delicate instrument - and to the men who braved the dangers of the deep and used it to map our world. The writing is sublime - he gives the reader a very real sense of what it is like to be lost in the Pacific, running out of food and water, reliant only on the starry heavens above to guide the boat to safety.... History, adventure and star-gazing all in one terrific volume.
on 15 June 2014
This is a delightful book. David Barrie weaves together his own experiences at sea with accounts of some of history’s most fascinating maritime voyages and the development of navigational instruments. Barrie takes us to sea with Captain Cook, George Vancouver, Matthew Flinders, Robert Fitzroy and Sir Earnest Shackleton (among others), bringing their adventures and trials vividly to life. Sextant is a window onto an age of seemingly limitless possibility and exploration, peopled by courageous and innovative figures. While Barrie’s sea stories entertain, they also help to establish his central point, for above all, Sextant is a tribute to the eponymous instrument. For Barrie, the sextant is not merely a quaint nautical artifact, but an eminently useful device that both hones and challenges the sailor’s seamanship. Unlike modern nautical instruments, which reply on GPS and computerized data and can function almost independently, the sextant is useless without the sailor’s knowledge and experience; it requires his understanding of mathematics and astronomy to function successfully. Barrie’s own knowledge of celestial navigation enables him to provide accessible explanations of the often intricate necessary calculations and observations. The reader is left feeling great admiration for those sailors who have mastered this complex yet elegant art. Barrie acknowledges the value of modern navigational systems, yet he also recognizes what has been lost as a result of increased reliance on new technology. Barrie argues that sailors “are not only turning their backs on the very things that make the whole undertaking worthwhile, but they are also denying themselves the precious rewards of agency—the use of hand, head, and eye to solve problems and overcome difficulty.” Sextant is a strong argument for the value and importance, not only of traditional navigational skills, but of the many other traditional skills we are in danger of losing.
on 18 May 2016
I really enjoyed reading this. But then I was fascinated by the simple and so elegant idea, that the exact angle of the sun (or stars) uniquely establishes your position on earth. The Sextant itself is brilliantly designed to establish an angle. The writer intersperses his own journey with that of many others, such as Shackleton's navigation of 400 miles and Bligh's of 1,000's, using only a sextant, although you probably need a good clock as well. I thought a Sextant would be cheap, they ain't.
on 11 January 2015
This is story-telling at its best – a well researched and carefully written account of how one little instrument has shaped our history. David Barrie’s enthusiasm for the sextant is quite infectious, and he carries us through its remarkable story on several interleaving layers; its development, the bold navigators who used it to push themselves and the frontiers of the world – among them Bligh, Anson, Cook, La Pérouse, Vancouver, Slocum and Worsley – and his own trans-Atlantic crossing in 1973. It also hovers over the mystery of how the Polynesians managed to navigate thousands of miles across the Pacific apparently with no man-made navigational aids at all. GPS has made the use of the sextant virtually redundant, but, as Barrie reminds us, relying on it distances us from the natural world. He doesn’t argue that we should all return to taking sights of the sun and stars, but this is a book for those who understand that going to sea is about being in tune with the environment and not watching a screen.
on 9 April 2014
I love this book.Real soul food. Not much technical detail, for enthusiasts, but that is easily available elsewhere, like the Navlist site.
Includes a thoughtful, scholarly and more balanced history of the lunar/Maskelyne/Harrison Clock debate than the Sobel book. Also good on French Cel/ Nav history which is missing from a lot of the Anglo-American literature. Very good on the philosophy of a happy/ contented life, what is good for the soul, and why some of us love this Celestial Navigation so much!
Main problem, he quotes several source books that I have now had to go out and buy! Some nothing to do with CN e.g. "The case for working with your hands" by Matthew Crawford.( Read that too. Very anarchic but explains why I like to build Bygrave and Fuller slide rules and use them to work my CN sights. I think!).
Great book. Should come with a health warning though. "May ferment impractical and unrealistic dreams!"