when the zenith distance was less than a degree or two, plotting its geographical position.
I must have taken thousands of sights with that sextant and even now I can remember just how it felt in the hand, and how much pleasure I got from using it.
My next sextant was acquired in a somewhat different fashion. Right at the end of the European war I was appointed navigator of HMS Philante, built as Tom Sopwith's yacht and now, renamed Norge, the Royal Yacht of Norway. We were based at Loch Erribol, on the north coast of Scotland, to act as headquarters ship for the surrender of German U-boats in the North Atlantic. It was an interesting assignment. The U-boats were brought in from sea by escort vessels, generally in twos or threes, and one of my duties was to be present during the interrogation of the captains. Another was to take charge of the navigational instruments. Some of these were of great ingenuity, such as the ARG1, a stereographic projection of the sphere engraved on glass and viewed through a microscope for sight reduction, an air-driven gyro-sextant that pumped up like a bicycle tyre and, most unexpectedly, an exact copy of the Bygrave slide rule developed in the Royal Flying Corps soon after the First World War. But it was the sextants that caught my eye, black, beautifully machined, very light and with an enormous horizon glass.
The instruments (for the sake of the British nautical instrument trade) were all destined for destruction, but I was able, more or less with official connivance, to 'liberate' - to use the cynical expression then fashionable - a single sextant. Its certificate from the Deutsche Seewarte gave the year of manufacture by Plath as 1939, the centring error as zero; the swastika was emblazoned on the index arm. It was the finest instrument I have ever used and I used it for close on 45 years. The last time I saw it was amid the sodden debris of Jester's final knockdown. I thought of taking it with me but the case was broken and I knew the telescope had misted up. It seemed too like the end of a chapter.
Practically all its 50 years must have been spent on the North Atlantic. Of its use in the U-boat one can only surmise. The batteries which drive the electric motors would have been charged on the surface at night and no doubt on occasions the navigator would have found a moonlit horizon firm enough to take stars. Perhaps on distant patrols the sun will have been used. All that is conjecture. But of its use under sail after the war the memories are still fresh. I suppose, because some skill is involved, sextant observations are so much more memorable than compass bearings or a Decca fix.
There is no restriction nowadays on electronic fixing aids in ocean racing and I imagine few competitors in RORC events, for example, bother to take the sun, let alone the moon or stars. But it was not always so and I remember several occasions when stars seem to have made all the difference. Two in particular stand out, the first, perhaps 30 years ago, in Foxhound towards the end of a Brixham-Santander Race when we raised the Spanish coast at dawn in company with our nearest rival Bloodhound. The powerful landfall light we had both expected to sight was for some reason extinguished, but whereas I had been able to get a reliable star fix which enabled us to shape up for the finish, Bloodhound's distinguished navigator had not.
The second was in Anitra during the Fastnet Race of 1959, a race we won. We had had a lot of dirty weather making up for the Rock and I had only the vaguest idea of where we were; gale after gale seemed to have swept by, but at dawn a few stars showed up through the cloud wrack and I persuaded the skipper to heave to whilst I got a reliable enough position for us to pinpoint the Rock.
One could go on, but it would be tedious. It was Jester that housed the sextant over the last 20 years and, with her central control hatch, provided the perfect platform as well as the ideal opportunity for sights with her long ocean voyages. It was perhaps fitting that they should go together.
After the U-boat surrenders, Philante, where I had acquired the sextant, led an escort group accompanying a number of U-boats from Londonderry to Libau, in the Baltic, where they were handed over to the Russians. It was a navigationally fraught operation, as we had to skirt the Swedish three-mile limit at speed to avoid acoustic mines dropped by our own aircraft.
When we arrived the escort group were berthed in the commercial harbour and the U-boats in the Naval docks at the other side of the town with no means of communication between them. Our reception by the Soviet authorities had not been cordial and there was no shore leave. Predictably, complaints soon began to come claiming that British sailors off some of the U-boats had been picked up ashore, allegedly drunk. It seemed essential to contact the senior officer in the large Type XXI U-boat and I volunteered (or was I deputed?) to make the journey on foot, following a bearing from the chart by hand-bearing compass.
It was a dismal trek, the town virtually
boarded up, and I was glad to reach the
haven of the U-boat. The matter in hand
was quickly resolved but the story forms a
sad, if somewhat tenuous, epilogue to this
note. The senior officer in question was
Sam Brooks, who later was to sail Marabu with such verve for the RNSA. He lost his
life in the end using a sextant, somehow
falling overboard and being drowned
before the yacht could recover him. I was
never sure of the details.
Copyright © Mike Richey (Yachting Monthly October 1990)