Charlotte, NC: On August 21, the so-called 'Path of Totality' for a rare but much ballyhooed Solar Eclipse missed my hometown by a whisker, leaving us with a 98% eclipse.
Just a 90-mile drive to the south, in Columbia, SC, tens of thousands of people flocked to see the real deal. The pre-event hype here in the Southeast was worthy of a heavyweight championship boxing match, and I have to say, the actual event was quite interesting, but underwhelming in terms of what it was billed to be.
Two days before the big day, my youngest - a high school senior, came to me and announced, "I'm driving to South Carolina with a bunch of kids to see the eclipse!" I eyed my offspring warily - a tragic marketing victim - before replying evenly, "Would you care to rephrase that last comment?" Following a pregnant pause, the exasperated reply came back, "Dad: can I drive to South Carolina and spend the night so we can see the solar eclipse?" ME: "No."
"Why not?!" came the expected response, followed quickly by, "EVERYONE is going!" I carefully considered that compelling argument before responding, "And that's part of the reason that you are not going. Don't you know that every crystal reader, nutcase and new age palm reader is currently clogging the Interstate Highways to get there? And, they are driving through Charlotte to do it." This was true: there wasn't a motel room to be had within 75 miles in any direction. Adding to that potentially nightmare scenario, the University of South Carolina was getting ready to bring in its entire frosh class to its Columbia campus. Imagine being part of THAT move-in day.
Just to put the matter to bed with finality, I asked firmly, "Whose parents are going to chaperone this caravan?" There was (predictably) no answer to that one, so I proclaimed brightly, "Look, we're gonna get a 98% eclipse, and better yet, I've got a sextant!" I looked up to see if I had made any points with that announcement, but our nascent star gazer was already long gone; up the stairs, down the hall and behind a slammed bedroom door.
Sextant Shopping 101
In fact, I already had that shiny black beauty out on the kitchen counter. A 1982 built Tamaya Sextant with star scope; it had been bought the very same day as I had sat for and earned my Second Mate's license. In fact, the local U.S. Coast Guard regional exam center (REC) at that time was in the same building as the Baker Lyman store on the Gulf Freeway in Houston.
It was what you were supposed to do back then. Or, so I thought. As a cadet in 1979, I had been told by the Second Mate on a Keystone VLCC the summer before my senior year at Mass. Maritime that, and I quote, "a truly professional Second Mate never goes up the gangway without first purchasing his/her own sextant." That actually didn't turn out to be quite true.
This was long before you could do Internet searches for such things (gasp!), but I had nevertheless done some reading before making that purchase, and asked a few folks what they thought that I should get. In those days, there were, I was told, two primary choices. You could either get a Plath or a Tamaya. All the rest of them were crap. The Plath was widely considered to be the better of the two models, but I was also told that the difference in accuracy was so infinitesimal that the vast majority of mariners couldn't plot the difference anyways. I naturally counted myself among that challenged group. And the Plath was 5-to-10% more expensive. With my credit card in hand, I eyed the choices and made my selection.
The clerk brought it out for me and started to place it into a plastic box. I stopped him and said, "What's this? I want the wood box over there." He explained that Tamaya was transitioning to the plastic carrier and that I couldn't have THAT wood box. I replied that I wasn't going to buy the sextant if that was indeed the case. He (patiently & correctly) explained that each box was matched via serial number to the corresponding sextant and that if he did what I wanted, U.S. Customs could stop me (assuming I was sailing foreign) and accuse me of bringing in something that I had purchased abroad but not declared. I told him that I didn't care and in any event, I was sailing coastwise Jones Act tonnage.
We had an uncomfortable moment or two and as he contemplated the loss of a big ticket sale, I took the opportunity to dramatically run my hands over the outside of that finely polished box. Okay, it was all a little weird. Ultimately, he sighed and slid the correction / calibration data (specific to my sextant) out of the plastic box and exchanged it for the data in the wooden box. Five minutes later, I was on my way home, $1,250 poorer, but with a big smile on my face.
I couldn't wait to take that hambone out for a spin. I joined my next ship, a decrepit chemical tanker, in Corpus Christi. I carried the sextant onto the airplane on the way and then later, up the gangway. A few days later, in the Gulf of Mexico, I pulled it out during the 12-to-4 watch and took a couple of sun lines and plotted them on a small area plotting sheet that I had taped to the chart table to the right of the chart in use. This made me very happy. And, not much else did when I was at sea in those days. Anyone who has taken the time to practice their celestial skills on board any merchant vessel, using the typically beat up and abused model that most shipping companies toss up onto the bridge as an afterthought, knows exactly what I am talking about.
For a time, it became a habit. I never did it within sight of land or other traffic, but a long afternoon watch in the Gulf of Mexico could get awfully boring, especially when you'd already corrected every chart in the portfolio, cleaned out the pencil drawer and emptied the overflowing ashtrays. I would come up each day with a fresh plotting sheet, plot a course and last known position and take a few sun lines, followed by my afternoon azimuth. And, Voila! Before you knew it, it was 1545 hours, and the ill-mannered Chief Mate was stomping up the stairs with a few offhand insults and a cursory look into the 16cm Radar, before telling me to "beat it." I was only too happy to oblige.
After a couple of trips, the Captain got relieved and the new guy (anything but new, and never nice) quickly made it known that he didn't think too much of my navigation activities. Told to quit "screwing around" on watch, I packed it up and never did it again on that hitch. In the wake of that edict, navigation typically involved the hourly Loran C fix and not much else. We had, I think, a Decca and an Omega unit on board, both of which were excellent places to balance a cup of coffee, but not too good for much of anything else. They were a royal pain to operate and I can't say that I ever used either one with any degree of confidence. Hence, their demise, I suppose.
On the same trip, I decided to take stars at night. It was either that or crack a few beers while alone off-watch behind a locked stateroom door after dinner. That seemed like a dead end. Hence, and after calculating the seven best choices in my cabin, I popped up to the wheelhouse and asked the Chief Mate if he minded if I shot stars for a few minutes. He muttered gruffly that he didn't, but it was clear that he did. I only did it once more on that trip.
On later trips with the same outfit, I got similar responses whenever I brought out the sextant. Even then, it (the sextant as a tool) was on its way out and most of the mates could've cared less. Most of the Masters, it just annoyed them for whatever reason. Loran C eventually would be replaced by GPS, and although not available on commercial vessels, I had already used and experienced SINS - or Ship's Inertial Navigation - while on board a MSCLANT missile tracker. And, when, not too long ago, the U.S. Naval Academy openly debated whether or not to drop celestial navigation from its curriculum altogether, I wasn't in the least bit surprised.
Eventually, I left the sextant home when I rejoined my ship. It just wasn't worth the drama and/or the hassle, anymore. As it turned out, and on that very same hitch, I called home to one of my roommates in Houston when I pulled into port in beautiful Carteret, NJ. He advised me that we had been robbed. Really worried about everyone else, I immediately blurted, "What did they get of mine?" Just about everything: my Fuji bicycle, stereo, and the Bose speakers; they even had my clothes out on the bed while they contemplated their five-fingered discount selections. The only thing they left, I was told, was the sextant. The box was found on the bed, open and the sextant pulled out of it. I guess they figured it would've been a pretty tough thing to fence. Go figure.
A little later, and after almost six years at sea, I came ashore involuntarily (my ship sold and scrapped out from under me) and shoved the sextant box into a closet. I've moved several times since, but it always seems to make it into the car whenever I do. And for the last 23 years, it has resided in the exact same spot in my walk in bedroom closet. On August 19, I went looking for it and pulled it out.
The $1,250 View
Since I was the only person in Charlotte who had neglected to plan for and shell out money for the 'eclipse glasses,' the sextant was probably the only thing that saved me from an in-house lynching. But, that said; people don't give me enough credit. On the 20th, I wandered out onto the front lawn and toyed with the filters and shades for a bit until I'd found the ideal view. And in open defiance to that Captain who had so long ago told me to put it away, I deliberately messed with it for a full hour before depositing the sextant onto the dining room table.
The big day arrived and we assembled on the front lawn with my kids in tow. I brought the sun down to a point where the kids could focus on a set point without having to search around for it too much. As I did this, the neighbors gathered in small groups across the street, whispering and muttering - probably wondering what the nut at the end of the cul-de-sac was doing with the strange device. I purposely left them in the dark.
As the eclipse began, it was quite something to see the 'bite' out of the sun get larger. And, at 98% eclipse - 2:41 PM, in case you were wondering - it's difficult to imagine a more impressive eclipse, but I guess 100% in Columbia, SC probably took the prize. And, as my high school senior now tells me (annoyingly often), "We'll never know, will we?" The view through the sextant nevertheless seemed to placate the kids and I will say this: I borrowed one of the neighbor's 'eclipse glasses' that he'd ordered on line, and took a peek that way. Without a doubt, the sextant was the only and best way to view the event.
With the sextant back into the box and now safely back in the closet, I had a thought: What is it worth today? In perfect condition, those retail prices had to have skyrocketed in the 35 years since I'd bought it. With visions of a lucrative e-bay sale dancing in my head, I dialed up some pricing. What I found out was kind of depressing, and for me, puzzling. A new (comparable) sextant today can be had for just $2,200 and used models (that sellers claim are in as-new condition) are going for as little as ~ $500.
I mentioned the (disappointing) pricing to my wife at dinner that night. She shrugged and then replied, "That makes perfect sense. I mean how much demand can there be for a sextant when teenage girls have had GPS on smart phones since they were in grade school?" She's always right. Dammit. This literally sends me right over the proverbial edge. That said; she's the smartest person on the planet. In any event, the next total eclipse over North American, so they tell me, is in April 2024. Drop by my place for a peek through the sextant, when it comes. I'll put the beer on ice. - MLPro
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Joseph Keefe is a 1980 (Deck) graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and lead commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com. Additionally, he is Editor of both Maritime Logistics Professional and MarineNews magazines. He can be reached at email@example.com or at Keefe@marinelink.com. MaritimeProfessional.com is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.