Navigating by the Stars

October 6, 2023

Author: Hwan Huh, Boston College

KODAK Digital Still Camera

Just a picture from yesterday to prove I'm still alive

Ship's Log

Date: October 6, 2023Time: 19:30Location: 16? 49.282 S 179 56.335E: Savu Savu BayWeather: Mostly clear with light winds, 23?C

Hi everyone! I'm Hwan and I'm currently a junior at Boston College majoring in Environmental Justice and Policy.

There is something super magical about stars. A lot of my favorite memories come from nights looking at stars, on mountains or by the sea or on frozen ground. My college essay was about a poem called ⌠My God, it's Full of Stars and the boundless wonder stars give me. They really hold such incredible weight and tonight was no different. I've pretty much just come off evening watch (1300-1900) and the last hour of our watch I was standing on lookout, trying not to be distracted by the night sky shining clear above my head. Once we were relieved we took some time as a watch looking at constellations and planets with the guidance of our watch officers (Thank you Matt and Vuk!). People made scorpions and hunters and fish hooks and dragons and swans out of the night sky, wrote legends and immortalized stories, and, most relevant to us aboard the Seamans, navigate.

Celestial navigation is a super cool and very romantic idea, but it turns out it's just a whole lot of math. The geometry and theory behind said math is cool, but it takes a lot out of the idea of some explorer going into unknown lands guiding themselves by the stars. To even approach modern celestial navigation requires a nautical almanac, which is this chunky blue book that lives in the doghouse that's pretty much full of numbers that you use as references for the measurements you take with a sextant. It uses angle from some celestial body (sun, stars, planets) and the horizon, as well as a ton of other variables, to determine your location.

I kind of left it at that when we first learned about it during the shore component of the program, and it stayed there until I started reading a book called Sea People. It discusses the history of the understanding of Polynesian people and culture, and the theories people have had throughout history of how they managed to colonize basically every island in the Pacific. The really interesting bit to me, however, was the emphasis on how different Polynesian thinking and culture were compared to the Europeans. Polynesians had very sophisticated navigation ability, just not one that could be readily understood or even really reconciled with European navigation. What we've been learning and practicing aboard reflects the European way of objectivity and facts. While we have our compass rose and fixed points and distances, Polynesians had something that fits the romantic idea of celestial navigation much better: a connection to the world they lived in. Polynesian navigation is based around the sailor and what they can immediately experience. It wasn't about your relation to a theoretical set of axes or some distance that you can't really picture in your mind, it was about your direction compared to points on an island, or the in relation to the wind, and time was used to measure a voyage rather than distance. The most amazing part to me, however, was how they used stars. Polynesian navigators, even to today, have a concept called star path, where a ship would set their course based on the location of rising stars, and adjust their course based on the next star in the path that would rise over the horizon. Beyond that, there were so many more techniques that I encourage you to read about if you ever get the chance.

There's really a lesson to learn from the dichotomy between navigation methods. To wrap up the more academic-sounding stuff, it was discussed in the book that Polynesians had an oral tradition, which was seen as something primitive to the Europeans with their log books and detailed histories. However, to quote Sea People, "In an oral culture only what matters to the living is retained oral cultures remain close to the living human lifeworld"(128). In school or wherever you learn things there's a kind of obsession over writing the "so what?" It's something you're taught when you're young, to write a so what in your project, which becomes the discussion section in a research paper or something else. In an oral tradition, everything matters, because if it didn't matter it wouldn't survive. It makes you that much more aware of your experience as a human on this earth, and that's a kind of understanding I think we could all strive to keep with us. Maybe not everything needs a justification to exist to everyone.

It's a lot of dots to think about and connect just from looking at the stars. It's like trying to teach someone a constellation you can connect stars and make shapes and embellish them into a beast or human, but if the other person doesn't see or find meaning in the constellation, then it doesn't really matter to them. They will continue to find meaning and share things that they see in those stars instead.This blog post is kind of like that. Thanks for following along and trying to see the constellation made of a bunch of random points loosely in the same sphere if you don't see it or don't care, that's totally ok too.Hi Mom and Dad, I'm alive and well, just a little seasick. To my old roommates, don't miss me too much! To other friends who are reading this, thank you for taking time to read (listen?) to me ramble! I know you're all in such different places and I hope I get to listen to your stories when I'm back. And to Suiyenah, I love you and miss you lots, and I hope this is enough of a sign that I absolutely have not forgotten you!

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