Shooting The Sun


Eight Bells, by Winslow Homer

Eight Bells, by Winslow Homer

I’ve lately been moderator for the “Science and Astrology” discussion groups in Matrix’s ACT forum, and in the “physical basis” thread arose the problem of whether what we believe to be “facts” in astrology and use daily, including signs, aspects, houses, etc., though not accepted by most in scientific circles, are ahead of what’s accepted or simply occasionally successful conjurings of our own. That debate is still ongoing there, but here is a literally star-studded example from the historically real world which may support both sides of this very relative issue.

[condensed from the log of the supercargo on board the Dolphin, 1815, in the collection of The Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, Virginia] For those who have actually had a sextant in hand or are old enough astrologers to have worked from tables, this is even more specifically amusing…


On March 20, 1815, the brig Dolphin sailed out of Beaufort, North Carolina, with a cargo of tobacco bound for Gibraltar (these events were recorded by her supercargo, the man in charge of selling the goods on arrival).  They almost immediately sailed into stormy weather, which continued for a week, although neither captain nor supercargo cared much, because the captain was a very good cook, and there were plenty odrinkables on board for the officers, a rare situation in those days…


When the skies briefly cleared, the three ranking lieutenants got out their sextants and “shot the sun” (reading its altitude to determine the ship’s latitude).  And, the ship adjusted its course accordingly, to accurately reach Gibraltar.  This was repeated each rare time the weather cleared.


Strange, though, the weather got colder and worse, and by April it began to snow.  Unheard-of in those climes.  Finally, they sighted a few rocky islands in the mist and snow and took them to be the islands off North Africa you sight before reaching Gibraltar.  So they sailed between them and went on.  Finally, they sighted a coastline with massive mountains split by waterways surrounded by towering cliffs.  This was not Gibraltar…


Shortly, they sighted a small fishing boat, which they hailed first in English, then Spanish, then Portuguese, Dutch, French, German, all to no avail.  So they pulled up aside it and demanded the frightened fisherman to come on board, at the point of a musket.  They took him below and pulled out a chart of the world and made motions for him to show them where they were.  Putting his finger on the chart, “Christiansound, Christiansound!” the fisherman cried, speaking Norwegian.  Suddenly they realized, in stark disbelief, that they were not near Gibraltar, but off he coast of Norway!


Reeling with the news, the officers asked the fisherman to guide them to Christiansound harbor, apologized, and thanked him profusely.  And, their luck held out and they found that there was a great shortage of tobacco in Christiansound and sold their cargo at great profit…all’s well that end’s well…


But how had it happened?  The most careful attempts of three officers at navigation and location of the ship had failed utterly.  The “islands off Gibraltar” had been, in fact, the Faeroe Islands, north of Scotland, in some of the most treacherous waters in the world.  Steering by their own stars, they were lucky to be alive…


Finally, sitting in port, they figured it out.  When they left North Carolina, it was right at the spring equinox.  In navigation, as the Sun moves higher above the equator, you must subtract this motion in order to properly get your position.  The officers, to a man, probably following one another, had added it instead, and then adjusted the ship’s course continually northward as a result.  A combination of good food, good drink, bad weather, and a fatal flaw, landed them in Christiansound.  They came out of it with a profit, but who knows how many other sailors have perished of the same kind of conditions?…

One Response to Shooting The Sun

  1. […] correctly.  Thanks to Joan Druett for passing along this amusing tale from John Townley on  the Matrix blog in which it is clear that not every sailor knows his […]

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