Mauna Kea

3. Navigating to Hawaii

Doug’s plan for his great adventure was a grand tour of the South Pacific islands, and it all began with a first leg to Hawaii. The STARSHINE left Alameda on October 4th, 1977 and I was on board. The crew consisted of Doug, his wife Linda, his daughter Heather, his brother Stan and four good friends.

Off We GO

Off We Go

An Escort

An Escort

(click on image for larger view)

Navigation soon became a main topic of conversation because, in the crew of eight, there were five of us that knew celestial navigation and each had a sextant at their disposal. It was decided that each would calculate their own fix and plot it on the chart. We would then average them all together and that would be our working fix for the day. Because I was nearsighted and wore glasses, I always found evening stars and morning star difficult to do. You have to be able to see the star and the horizon at the same time, and when the horizon is visible the stars are hard to spot. Glasses are definitely a hindrance. Consequently, I specialized in LAN (Local Apparent Noon). LAN is normally used only for latitude, but if you have accurate time there is a way to determine longitude as well. This was in the early days of digital electronic wrist watches. They kept excellent time, and were much easier to use than the mechanical chronometers I used in the Navy.

Other members of the crew had specialties too. Doug’s bother, Stan, was “Chief Fisherman.” In preparation for the trip he had researched the technicalities of fishing for albacore which are colloquially referred to as “winged pigs.” They are fat little tuna with long pectoral fins, and they are considered to be one of the best of the tunas for eating. Stan usually had his albacore line out in our wake and the results were good as you can see from one of the photos below. Linda was cook, and Heather was all-around “Girl Friday” including standing watches at age eleven.

"Winged Pig"

"Winged Pig"

Lot of Sun

Lots of Sun

In general, the passage from California to Hawii is an easy trip. It is a down-wind slide all the way. This particular voyage was no exception. We had lots of sun, and made it to Hilo on the “Big Island” in a little over 15 pleasant days.

Doug Retrieves A Wayward Halyard

Doug Retrieves A Wayward Halyard

Rudder Repairs Underway

Rudder Repairs Underway

As I remember, when we were three or four days from Hilo, we had a humorous little incident that proved interesting from a navigational point of view. It happened during one of the night watches when the deck watch, let it be known there was a brightly lit ship coming into view. Everyone went up on deck to take in this sight. Sure enough, approaching from the direction of Hawaii was a cruise ship and it looked like a whole village with all its lights. We also noted that it looked like a collision course. Doug got on the radio and called them up. The conversation went something like this:

“Passenger vessel — this is the ketch STARSHINE, ten days out of San Francisco, bound for Hilo. We have you off our port bow with a constant bearing and closing range. Do you see us?”

All our running lights were on but a couple of the crew played flashlights on the sails to increase our visibility. An answer came back within seconds. This with a pronounced British accent:

“Yes, STARSHINE — this is the Princess Lines ship XXXXXXX, two days out of Honolulu  bound for Los Angeles. We see you and will alter course to pass astern of you.”

In situations like this, a vessel under sail has the right-of-way according to the International Rules of the Road. They did as they said and there was no danger at all, but since we had them on the line, we decided to ask them for their position.

“Wait one” was the reply.

Within a minute they were on the air again with a longitude and a latitude which they explained was a DR (Dead Reckoning) from some 30 hours ago. THIRTY HOURS AGO! In the meantime we had done evening stars, morning stars, LAN and evening stars again. This was a bit of an eye-opener for us. Here was this huge impressive ship and we were much more conscientious in our navigation than they were. The truth of the matter, however, is that we were navigation fanatics and, when you stop and think about it, there really isn’t anything to run into between Hawaii and the West Coast. I even heard of one rustic character who, being ignorant of celestial navigation, got to Hawaii by following the airplanes passing overhead.

We immediately went to the chart to find out how close they were to us. The latitude looked okay but the longitude put us somewhere in Arizona. We got back on the radio again and asked if they would please confirm the longitude they had given us. Again the very British accent came back, but this time you could almost feel the embarrassment in it. He had apparently transposed some digits and what should have been 141 was given to us as 114. He blamed it on the ship’s computer. We plotted this new number on the chart and found that they were still so far from us that we shouldn’t be able to see them, but there they were a couple of hundred yard away. At that point we decided to leave well enough alone. Our navigation was RIGHT ON. Several days later I got up in the morning, looked at the chart and thought: “We should be able to see it from here.” I went up on deck and sure enough there was the top of Mauna Kea poking up through the morning mist.


All this reminiscing about celestial navigation makes me feel a little sad. It was always such a satisfying experience to make your sights, do your calculations using logarithms, plot your fix and be able to point with confidence to an X on the chart and say “We are here!” Today, with GPS (Global Positioning System) and computers the task has become mundane. I wonder if the Navy even has a position aboard ship called “Navigator” any more.

Upon arrival in Hilo, I had to leave and fly back to my job in San Francisco but Doug, to his credit, went on and completed his grand tour of the South Pacific.

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Friday, March 19th, 2010 STARSHINE 5 Comments