The Sextant

A “Sea Story” by Charles Goodman

The “good old days” were not, in all ways,  as good as we like to remember. My story begins a generation ago in the summer of 1983, B.G.P.S. (Before Global Positioning Systems), in the days when offshore navigation involved the use of a sextant,  short wave radio, chronometer, navigation tables, plotting sheets, parallel rulers and other such paraphernalia.  Sextants today, like bronze, binnacle mounted  compasses, are more often ornaments for the dens of sailors many of whom have never used one for navigation. And fair enough. G.P.S. has become so accurate, so reliable and so inexpensive….. who really longs for the days of anxiously waiting for clear skies to make an observation? And who misses knowing that, at best, celestial calculations might give you a “position” three or four miles from your actual lat/long? And that, often, only once a day. Not anymore. Position accuracy +/- ten feet x twenty fours hours per day works for me. But this is now……

…….Then, I sweated bullets through a celestial navigation class taught by a tough old coast guard commander with no observable sense of humor. I passed, but barely, using my twenty dollar plastic Davis sextant. This instrument was functional but not in the least aesthetic. Most of my classmates were all using beautiful bronze instruments; Plaths, Tamayas and Freiburgers; accurately calibrated tools with front-surfaced mirrors for avoiding optical distortion. Well, I reasoned, I wasn’t setting off for an around the world but only for a run down the Pacific coast of the Baja Peninsula, from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas. My Davis would get me there, even if it didn’t look much  like a real sextant.

Preparing my  Nor’Sea 27 for this voyage was not  a problem. “Guenevere” was nearly new and Port Townsend, Washington’s victorian seaport,  has more chandleries than gas stations so was an ideal place for a simple refit.

Guenevere was hauled and perched on her trailer in the first week in December and as I made a final inspection of all tie-downs, my friend Larry Montgomery arrived to wish me a bon voyage. He was carrying a varnished mahogany box which he offered to me as a going away present. Inside was a magnificent bronze sextant, nestled in its velvet cushion!

Now I have a hard time receiving gifts, even small ones.  But this gift was too much. Way too much. Larry and I had been amicable acquaintances but he was not wealthy and in truth we were not so close as to warrant such a gift. Of course I thanked him for the gesture but insisted I could not accept anything so valuable. My “Davis” would do me, I assured him.

Larry listened to  this polite refusal, then answered;

“This is not as valuable as you think. In fact it has almost no commercial value. For sure you heard about last December’s big storm in Cabo?” (Indeed all sailors of that time knew about this storm, which “killed” dozens of beautiful cruising yachts, breaking or dragging their moorings and landing them on the beach in Cabo San Lucas where they pounded to pieces). I assured him I knew about this disaster. “Well,” he continued, “I did some salvage diving on a yacht which sank during that storm and this sextant was one of the things I recovered. But the saltwater caused some corrosion and the index and horizon mirrors were tarnished. It would cost more to repair than the sextant is worth.”

After a little hesitation I accepted. After all it was still a beautiful instrument and since I preferred to use running sun sites, the slight flaws in the mirrors would not cause a problem. . Well-pleased with my “new” sextant, I thanked Larry, climbed into my truck, and began the long haul South to San Diego where I returned Guenevere to her proper element, the sea.

Single-handing on long passages sounds romantic. And indeed there are moments of elation and tranquility, scenes of great beauty, and the enormous presence of the seamless horizon. But sailing alone in a sea lane, especially at night when large and undermanned vessels constitute an ever-present danger, is not restful. My technique for remaining alert consisted of equal parts coffee and rum to stay alert without being too wired  (don’t try this at home), plus a few minutes  meditation every hour or so.

But a consequence of this “routine” produced an unquiet mind and after the third day I began to have hallucinations and a recurring paranoid thought. I imagined that my beautiful bronze sextant had been “stolen” from its resting place on the seabed, and by some means unclear to my agitated mind, was engineering a return to its rightful place taking me and Guenevere with it.         I continued using it for  my twice daily observations of the sun  but as the days passed  the disturbing sense grew  that this sextant was on it way back to the watery grave in Cabo San Lucas from which it had only temporarily been “salvaged.”

I arrived in Cabo  the day before Christmas 1983 and joined the 30 or 40 yachts anchored just off the beach. I could easily understand the reason for the many shipwrecks on that beach just one year earlier. The ocean was deep to the beach  and even with 200 feet of chain and plenty of rode I could only get a good set which left my stern perhaps twenty yards from the beach. If a storm arose suddenly, there was little chance of clawing off this shore.

The other sailors were as uncomfortable as I about this anchorage ( although they didn’t have a demon sextant  aboard determined to sink their boats) and every day we gathered at the 70 footer of a wealthy Californian who had the only weather fax to warn of approaching storms.

A few nights of decent sleep and  I  recovered from my 8 day, sleepless passage and the disordered thinking it caused (the rum and coffee may have contributed). Still, this obsessive thought of the sextant “taking me down” in Cabo persisted, although in milder form. When, after a couple of weeks I set off from Cabo heading for La Paz, I felt a great sense of relief. The sextant had been thwarted in its desire to take itself, me and Guenevere to the bottom of the sea.

This second leg of the voyage was also made lighter by the addition of a crew member. A woman from Texas named Ann had approached me on the beach a few days before and asked if she could ship with me to La Paz.  Ann had her own boat near Galveston and was an experienced and competent sailor. It was an offer not to be refused. I had done enough single-handing and was glad of the company. Now I could  forget about my “premonition of doom” and the morbid thoughts about my “maleficent sextant.” Its destiny and mine were not to be the seabed of Cabo San Lucas.

Between Cabo and La Paz, 25 years ago, there was not much to lure a sailor. Los Frailles and Muertos, popular today, were virtually without habitation and a suitable anchorage only in good weather.  We sailed on by, my Texas mate and I, taking 4 hour tricks and looking forward to La Paz, a real city with a harbour and restaurants.

On the last night of this passage I laid a course between Isla Cerralvo and   Punta Arena on the southeastern horn of the Baja Peninsula. It was a roomy strait  perhaps five miles across and I  favoured the Peninsula side as there was a shallow reef lying a mile or so from Isla Cerralvo. Winds were steady from the Northwest so I didn’t anticipate the need for a change of course during my four hours off watch. Giving the helm to Ann I went below and fell deeply asleep.

Suddenly I was urgently awake and alert with fear.  A 6th sense told me that something was very wrong. I flew through the companionway  expecting to find  disaster.- Perhaps Ann had fallen overboard or………  but all was well. Guenevere  was sailing nicely, Ann competent as ever at the helm. Yet the feeling of danger was still strong. A glance at the compass told me what it was.  Ann had fallen off some 20 or so degrees to the east from the course I had given her. I glanced in the direction of Isla Cerralvo and another jolt of fear shot through me. The island was close. Much too close. I felt sure we must be right on top of the shallow reef lying a mile or so from the beach.

Without a word  I yanked the tiller from Ann’s hands and brought us about on a heading away  from Ceralvo and its dangerous reef.

I realized that I should have explained to Ann the reason for the course I had given her. She hadn’t seen the chart and so was unaware of the reef which nearly brought us to doom, so when the wind  changed direction, she saw no harm in falling off a bit to keep us moving well.  The error was mine. I apologized for not giving more complete instructions. A lesson learned, almost too late.

Things remained somewhat tense for a time but  with the dawn we entered the harbor at La Paz with calm restored. After a couple of days enjoying the restaurants and other attractions of city life, Ann left to return to Texas.

A few days later at around sunset, I saw a strange and disturbing sight.  A boat, dismasted and sunken to the cabin top, was  being towed into the port. I enquired about it and learned that this boat had struck the reef and sunk off Cerralvo Island on the same night that Guenevere had nearly suffered the same fate!  When I heard this news the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. What sense had waked me in time to save my boat?  So many mysteries of life on the sea…..

The rest of the voyage was mostly uneventful. Cruising slowly up the Baja side of the Sea of Cortez, in no hurry to return to Port Townsend before the winter passed, I visited the usual places….. Loreto, Mulege, and Concepcion.  At last, and reluctantly, I set off one night to cross the Sea of Cortez bound for Guaymas where I intended to haul Guenevere and  head for home. A lump swell made the 70 mile crossing tiresome but the autopilot earned its keep and with the dawn I could just make out the silhouette of mainland Mexico. I would need the sextant one more time to determine my latitude. Once the cause of so much anxiety, the sextant now seemed to be merely an old friend, the companion of my days sailing south to Cabo. Well, perhaps there was still just a hint of something sinister.

But the sextant proved this time to be unnecessary. The rising Sun revealed, dead ahead,  the narrow entrance to the harbor at Guaymas! Slim odds that after so many hours of pitching through head seas, my destination would be bow on,  but this “threading the needle” was Guenevere’s specialty and she had done it again. With mixed feelings I returned the sextant to its velvet lined box, my sea voyage and its utility over.

Trailering a sea-going boat  up Route 5  at 55 mph is a lot easier than sailing north up the Pacific Coast into headwinds and foul currents. From Mexico to Port Townsend took a mere five days and easy ones at that. No more marine adventures; just hot showers every night and rest in a stable bed.

I arrived back in Port Townsend in March exactly three months after I left. Signs of Spring were appearing. The winter was mostly behind.  Guenevere received new bottom paint and returned to her slip a more seasoned and appreciated “queen.” It felt good to be home.

Larry Montgomery showed up a few days later to welcome me back and to ask how the “navigation” had gone. I told him that the sextant had performed perfectly, but confessed the story of my paranoia. “I know it sounds crazy,” I told him, “but I was sure that sextant was determined to return to the sea bed at Cabo San Lucas where you took it from its resting place.”

“You are mistaken,” Larry told me. “It’s true that the sextant came from  a boat that sank during that Cabo storm..  But the boat I salvaged it from didn’t sink at Cabo. It sank after hitting a reef  a mile or so from  Isla Cerralvo.”

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  1. Very nice and mysterious story. Thank you for the telling. Amazing, trailering all the way down to San Diego and back from Guaymas.

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