Following its invention about 300 years ago, the sextant went on to become the essential tool of mariners in the centuries before the advent of satellite navigation. In opening up the seas like never before, the sextant helped to change the world.
Barrie, an experienced deep-sea sailor, colours in the absorbing history of the sextant with his own sheer joy and exhilaration at navigating the Atlantic in 1973 as a teenager using the same tools as those employed by James Cook centuries earlier. But the most captivating episodes recount the pivotal role played by the sextant in so many epic quests on the high seas, including the open-boat journeys of Bligh and Shackleton and the great voyages of discovery made by men such as Cook, FitzRoy, Flinders and Vancouver.
The romantic in Barrie fears that over-reliance on the button-pressing simplicity of GPS will weaken our natural navigational skills. Satellite navigation also removes the fun and satisfaction that can be gained from using more ‘primitive’ instruments while afloat, he believes. ‘It is time to rediscover the joys of celestial navigation,’ argues Barrie, ‘because using a sextant to find our way puts us in the closest possible touch with the natural world at its most sublime.’
A fascinating read for both landlubbers and sailors alike.
SEXTANT by David Barrie, William Collins, £16.99