Book 159: Sextant by David Barrie

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Sextant: A Voyage Guided by the Stars and the Men Who Mapped the World’s Oceans by David Barrie

Finished reading on December 31st, 2014

Rating: 9/10

If you enjoy a good travel journal, then this book might be for you… on the other hand, if you’re interested in celestial navigation, this book is definitely worth a read.

In “Sextant”, throughout the book you can read about the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean on a yacht in the 1970s and in addition you get to read about different expeditions through centuries where navigation was obviously very important and either made the expedition a success or a failure.

It was quite fascinating, I would have even liked to read a bit more about the explorers like Flinders (who explored the coast of Australia) or George Vancouver, who explored the coast of Alaska and in general the northwestern Pacific coast of North America or Robert FitzRoy who was the captain of HMS Beagle and took Charles Darwin with him on an expedition…

When I was in my early teens I got obsessed with explorers – not just any explorers though – they’d have to be polar explorers. I was fascinated with the cold and the snow (and in my 58 degrees north location, there are winters where temperature can fall to minus 30 degrees Celsius) and the people who would want to spend months on skies to cross Greenland (Nansen) or spend months aboard a ship wintering in sea ice… or defy the Southern seas and a continent covered in ice and aim for the South Pole – even in my essays I’d be writing about Scott and Amundsen or Shackleton. I’ve still not quite gotten over that obsession. But now I also enjoy reading about expeditions to other locations.

This book does mention Shackleton, as in his expedition it’s easy to imagine how errors in navigation would have made the already bad situation even worse.
In case of other expeditions as well – the stories are presented in only a few pages, but you get a glimpse to the importance of celestial navigation at the time and why just having a map doesn’t help you on the sea if you don’t know exactly where you are. In my case it was something I’ve never really thought about (except on a cruise ship going to Stockholm and imagining how could ships get there before modern technology)…

As I enjoy finding out where there are empty spots in my knowledge, I found the book excellent. It gave me lots of ideas what to read next (I just have to read some expedition diary… any suggestions?) and in general several times made me think “oh, that’s so fascinating!”

In general I’d say there are several good reasons for reading this book:
1. gives an idea how mariners navigated on the sea, what methods they used and what were some problems associated with them
2. gives several examples of naval expeditions and some of the hardships the people had to overcome
3. you won’t take knowing your location or precise maps for granted.
4. you might just catch a little wanderlust bug…

Oh and it’s 2015 in the Eastern hemisphere, so happy new year!

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