How Superstar Sailors Are Rounding the Earth Using Only What's in the Sky

The age-old practice of celestial navigation is making a comeback at this year's Golden Globe Race.

If you’re into international boat races, you know there are currently three skippers left competing in the renowned Golden Globe Race, a round-the-world solo sailing challenge. Hailing from India, Austria, and South Africa (that one’s Kirsten Neuschäfer, the only woman in the whole thing), they illustrate our truly universal fascination with the sea. The race launched last September in Les Sables-d’Olonne, France, with 16 entrants; right now, the final three are bobbing around somewhere at the junction of the North and South Atlantic Oceans. And while most vessels that attempt the feat of circumnavigating the globe these days utilize the latest, most high-tech equipment, the rules of the Golden Globe Race are a little different. Unusual, some might say.

For one, all boats must be made of fiber reinforced plastic and designed prior to 1988. And the technology must be even older: Sailors are relegated only to what was available in 1968, save for a satellite phone for giving interviews and communicating with headquarters. Which means iPhones must be left at home, music must be listened to by cassette (probably), and, most importantly, navigation must be done by the stars. Sealed GPS’s are on board for backup, but if they’re cracked open, the competitor forfeits. With all of these rather difficult stipulations, you would think the prize money is astronomical. But nope—it’s a mere £5000 UK Pounds (about $6,045).

South African skipper Kirsten Neuschäfer and her rig, 'Minnehaha'. | Sebastien Salom-Gomis/AFP/Getty Images

So then why do people do this? For some, the challenge of navigating by the stars is the main appeal. “I really like the aspect of sailing by celestial navigation,” Neuschäfer told NPR in a recent radio interview. “Sailing old-school, what it would have been like back when you didn't have all the modern technology at your fingertips.”

Sailors in the race use a tool called a sextant, developed in the mid- to late-18th century, when celestial navigation became more scientifically precise. Using the instrument, sailors can measure the angle between two objects—in this case, the horizon and a celestial body like the sun, moon, or stars. They then compare the results to a database called the nautical almanac, which specifies hour-by-hour the location of the celestial bodies directly above the Earth’s surface. Calculations are done and voila, you have your longitude and latitude within about a mile. And when it comes to accuracy, not much has changed since.

Perhaps for others, however, the draw of the race was notoriety. Only a couple hundred people are on record for having accomplished a solo circumnavigation. And then there’s the opportunity to make even more history. You see, the 2022 Golden Globe Race is no ordinary boat race. And those archaic rules? They’re not arbitrary. This race is only the third iteration of the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, first held back in 1968. That race not only set the record for a solo circumnavigation of the world, but was also one of the most legendary—and notorious—boat races of all time.

Robin Knox-Johnston, the winner of the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, greeting fans. | PA Images Archive/Getty Images

Stars in the sky, stars in their eyes

The year was 1966. A British adventurer named Francis Chichester had looked into the clipper ship spice and trade routes of the past and thought, Sure, that looks doable, especially all by myself. Stationed on Gipsy Moth IV, his 55-foot yacht, he essentially bobbed back in time and, in the process, became the first person to circumnavigate the world single-handedly, and set the record for the speediest voyage around the world in a small boat (though it should be noted he was not the first to do such a thing, just the fastest ever recorded). The 29,000-mile route passed treacherous capes, including the Cape of Good Hope in Africa and Cape Horn in South America. The voyage lasted 226 days, with one minor blip by way of a 48 day layover in Sydney, Australia, which meant it technically wasn’t nonstop. Which also meant there was still one more record to set: circumnavigating the globe solo, without a break.

Chichester’s journey was followed closely by British newspaper The Sunday Times and its readers were in turn enraptured by this adventurous—and skilled—dreamer. Sure, elsewhere powerful people were concurrently plotting to walk on the moon, but here was a feat that felt somewhat more tangible. On his return home in May 1967, the sailor was lauded, applauded, and knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. He was also held up as inspiration for all who dreamed of taking to the open seas.

Because, who would actually attempt such a thing without knowing what they were doing?

The following March, The Sunday Times announced the Golden Globe Race for the first nonstop solo trip around the world, capitalizing on Chichester’s fanfare and the fact that several folks were already planning to do it anyway. The prize was £5000 GBP and the competitors would rely on celestial navigation—there was, after all, no GPS at the time. They were required to set sail from a British port between June 1 and October 31, 1968, and return to where they started. There was no entry fee, and qualifications were minimal. Because, who would actually attempt such a thing without knowing what they were doing?

At least one person, as it turns out. That 1968 Golden Globe Race has gone down as one of the most storied races in history, the stuff of nautical legend. Of the nine skippers who entered, only one, a British Merchant Naval Officer named Robin Knox-Johnston, made it to the finish line, clocking in at 312 days. The other contestants—most of whom were skilled seamen—either sank, ended up in Tahiti and decided to stay there, or, in the case of Donald Crowhurst, a charismatic sextant salesman with high ambition but minimal sailing experience, faked the voyage after finding a leak in his ship, falsified log books, and then disappeared, presumed to have jumped over the side of his boat to his death. The race has been immortalized in song, books, plays, at least one opera, and several movies, including The Mercy, starring Colin Firth as Crowhurst.

A dapper 1930's ship's officer uses a sextant. Tools today are not much different. | H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Enter modern-day mechanisms

Despite the drama—or maybe because of it—the race eventually returned. On its 50th anniversary in 2018, it was rebooted by Australian explorer Don McIntyre. By then, the authorities had wised up: Entry was by invitation only, with participants demonstrating 8,000 miles of prior sailing experience, plus another 2,000 miles solo in any boat, as well another 2,000 miles in their competing vessel. Each boat is also equipped with a fixed tracking system, ensuring that nobody could pull a Crowhurst.

With the slogan “Sailing like it’s 1968,” it’s clearly still a race of endurance, seafaring skills, and pushing personal limitations. But unlike back when it was a given, these days, the use of celestial navigation is a big part of the allure. It’s akin to time travel: On a basic level, looking to the heavens to determine location was utilized everywhere from the Phoenicians in 12th Century BCE to the wayfinding ancient Polynesians to formerly enslaved people finding their way across America’s Mason-Dixon line after escaping. Besides, if you were able to calculate your position in the wide open sea based solely on angles of the sun, moon and stars to the horizon, who wouldn’t want to flex that skill? Plus a sextant looks really cool.

While celestial navigation is still utilized by some modern-day sailors—some who nerd out on the stuff and some who just want to occupy themselves during long stretches at sea—it’s still pretty novel. Though perhaps there might be a resurgence of interest on the… horizon. In 2015, the Naval Academy brought back their celestial navigation course after abandoning the practice a decade earlier for GPS—AKA Global Positioning System—satellites, first launched by the military in 1978. The decision was motivated by a fear of GPS hacking, as well as a widespread desire to get back to basics.

Elsewhere, celestial navigation classes skyrocketed at the beginning of the pandemic, perhaps in the same vein as would-be survivalists brushing up on their wilderness skills. Search the #celestialnavigation on Instagram and it brings up hordes of young navigators proudly holding their sextants, some while captaining cruise ships. The method also served as a plot point in the Marvel TV series, Moon Knight. The biennial Marion-Bermuda Race gives special prizes for sailors who utilize it, and now, the Golden Globe Race is returning for the second time in five years. All of which begs the question: Is celestial navigation slowly making a grand comeback?

Participants on their boats leave the harbor of Les Sables-d'Olonne at the start of the Golden Globe Race. | Sebastien Salem-Gomis/AFP/Getty Images

Nah, assures Frank Reed. The astrophysicist, cartographer, app developer, and expert in celestial navigation is the owner of Reed Navigation, as well as a teacher of both modern and traditional navigational methods at Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport Museum. According to Reed, the pandemic-born increase in enrollment, while welcome, was just a fluke. “It was online, and people were just dying to find something useful to do with their time,” he says. “I did have a significant uptick in the spring of 2020, but it faded pretty quickly because everybody got pretty sick of doing things online.”

Yet, there remains steady interest. The reasons people take Reed’s classes run the gamut. For example, did you know airline pilots get bored while flying? “The autopilots are so sophisticated that the biggest risk is the [human] pilot falling asleep—and they know this!” says Reed. To fill the time, some brush up on celestial navigation in the air, sometimes used pre-GPS (early 747s even had a built-in sextant port). “Instead of measuring the altitude of the stars off the sea horizon, aerial sextants have a built-in bubble, like a carpenter’s level,” explains Reed. “For pilots that have these long overnights, it’s something interesting to do.”

“For pilots that have these long overnights, it’s something interesting to do.”

Others find themselves in situations where it’s more economically efficient to use a sextant, as they’re generally cheaper than GPS systems. Sextants can soar in price up to $3,000, but the one Reed recommends, the Davis Mark 15 can be found for anywhere from $200 to $400 (just watch out for fakes). “A sextant doesn’t have to be terribly expensive—there are really good intro level instruments for less than $100,” says Reed. “And there are places in the world where it’s still useful to go a few hundred miles and navigate safely without having to have a GPS.”

Others still might have a GPS system, but don’t want to be dependent on a device that can fail if it runs out of power or malfunction if it gets wet. “The practical side is that you’re not using up your electronics,” says Reed. Celestial navigation can only give a position within the nearest mile—and if it's cloudy, you're out of luck—but works well for long journeys, especially in conjunction with a more precise GPS system. “If you have a very nice GPS system on your boat and you’re crossing the Atlantic Ocean, you save your electronics for the parts where it’s actually dangerous, when you’re near the rocks.”

Some students simply want to level up their sailing qualifications, while others see it as a survivalist skill—yes, we’re talking about that anti-tech consortium who refuse to trust satellites. “Although [hacking is] a concern, it’s more of just a general paranoia about tech than it is a reality,” says Reed. “There are now multiple satellite constellations, it’s not just GPS. Four other constellations produce the same information.”

GPS spoofing is good for cheating at Pokemon Go, apparently. | Matthew Corley/Shutterstock

Maybe there’s a small chance that satellites get hacked, but GPS coordinates can be spoofed, like when fake GPS signals are produced, say, by pirates aiming to wreak havoc in a war zone. “It’s a big deal that really hasn’t been weaponized much yet,” says Reed. “It turns out that so far, GPS spoofing has mostly been used by criminals to hide their own positions rather than to disrupt other people’s.” (As of now the only havoc that’s been wreaked was a little more benign: People using GPS spoofing to pick up monsters on the other side of the world during the Pokemon Go craze. It appears that people are more lazy than malicious.)

Last but not least, there are dreamers with money. “There’s a very popular dream when people retire which is, ‘We’re gonna buy a boat and sail around the world,’” says Reed. “And the first thing people buy when they come up with this dream is a sextant to learn how to navigate using the stars. Of course, 99% of these dreams flounder on the reef of things that happen in life.”

Thus, some tips for those that want to see their dreams into fruition: First, learn your constellations and their hemispheres (though some, like Orion’s Belt, are in both hemispheres and are especially useful for locating yourself), and get good at scouring resale sites. “Sextants, the expensive ones, too, turn up often on eBay in almost new condition,” says Reed. “So I tell people that’s a good place to get a nice, low-price, almost-new sextant.”

Then, prepare to understand the world as never before. “The Marion-Bermuda Race is coming up in just a few weeks, and they give them a handicap for using celestial navigation—of course, this is all gentleman’s rules, as they say. Obviously everyone on board these vessels can pull out a GPS and check,” says Reed. “But I’ll tell you something, some of the people that do those races are the most enthusiastic fans of celestial navigation. The payoff is so good, and so honest.”

The biggest reason people do it? Because it’s just so satisfying. “There’s something thoroughly magical about being able to figure out where you are with almost no external input,” says Reed. “Just by looking at the sun and the stars. It’s hard to beat.”

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. If she ever attempts to sail by celestial navigation, just consider her lost at sea.