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Star Fixes

Star Fixes

By Eryn Olson ’16

View full image. Photography by Meredith Clark
Imagine if you had to find your way by the stars. Across an ocean. 

Star fixes, sun lines, and dead reckoning are what guided Cordelia Franklin ’16 on the final leg of her journey last fall from Pago Pago in American Samoa to New Zealand.

She was on a semester-long learning voyage aboard a 134-foot sailboat with 22 other students. Students and crew navigated the South Pacific waters with tools no more sophisticated than those of early European and Polynesian explorers. (The boat was equipped with GPS and radar, just in case.)

They calculated their position based on “star frenzies” twice a day—once at dawn, once at dusk, when students on deck used half a dozen sextants to shoot the stars using the horizon. Scribes recorded angles and time to the second. (“Stand by to mark Cordelia on Betelgeuse! Mark!”)

There aren’t many people who make their way by celestial navigation today, Franklin acknowledges. But note that the U.S. Naval Academy recently reinstated lessons in using sextants—recognizing that in the age of cyberattacks or GPS failure, you need a backup.

Franklin, a Seattle native majoring in public health, isn’t sure how often she’ll need the sextant; but now that she knows the stars better, she looks at them a little differently. And, she says, it was pretty cool to be on lookout at the top of the mast and spy a pod of 40 dolphins playing alongside their boat.

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