David Berson on Finding Your Way Around the High Seas

Most Greenporters know Dave Berson as a captain steeped in the history and the know-how of nautical lore, but the truth is that this seafarer’s roots don’t lie in a generations-long storied seaside pedigree, but in his upbringing as the grandchild of immigrants in the Bronx.

“I was not raised as a sailor. I came out of the housing projects,” said Mr. Berson as he held court in Aldo’s coffee shop on Front Street on a recent chilly morning. “My grandparents were on a boat when they came to this country, and my father was on a boat when he fought in World War II, but neither of those experiences were very positive in terms of the boat ride.”

“I learned early that if I wanted a job on a boat — I’m not that big, I’m not that smart and I’m not that strong — the way to get a paying job on a boat was to learn celestial navigation and teach it.”

Fast forward nearly a half century, and Mr. Berson, now 70, has compiled wisdom gathered from his on-the-job training and mastery into a new book, “Celestial Navigation,” published by Skyhorse Publishing in November 2018.

“This is the culmination of many years of study and practice and teaching,” said Mr. Berson.

“I’ve been pursuing the knowledge of this stuff since at least 1974. I have mastered it to an extent where people trust me enough to run classes and explain to them the methodology and theory.”

Skyhorse Publishing editor Jay Cassell pitched the idea for the book to Mr. Berson, who has been writing a monthly column about historical problems in celestial navigation on the last page of Ocean Navigator magazine for the past decade.

“There are more books written about celestial navigation than there are about sex,” said Mr. Berson, who was initially skeptical of the book concept. “I decided I wanted to approach this book the way Woody Guthrie would explain it. I wanted to make this book as transparent as a bowl of soup.”

“It’s written for people who still count on their fingers, like me. It’s written for people who are math phobic, but it’s written for people who have a curiosity about our world,” he said. “It goes back to the time when people left their caves and wanted to go hunting and needed to find their way back to their cave. How the hell do you do that? Getting home is really important.”

With help from graphs and illustrations by Mr. Berson’s girlfriend, Meg Bennett, the 133-page volume lays out, in clear and concise language, the methods sailors master in order to find their way without GPS.

“Celestial navigation is shrouded in religious mystery, which I contend is created to keep everybody from realizing how simple it is, elevating the navigator into this higher position on the ship,” said Mr. Berson. “I certainly have used that scam myself.”

It’s easy to forget, in an age driven by technological devices, where every smartphone can tell us  where we are on the planet, that it wasn’t that long ago that celestial navigation was the primary form of navigation on ships going offshore. 

When Mr. Berson started sailing in the early 1970s, GPS was not available, and it remained prohibitively expensive for quite a long time before the information explosion of the past two decades. 

Mr. Berson said GPS took over so rapidly that a course in celestial navigation was taken out of the curriculum at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis about a decade ago.

But then, something changed, he said. The government realized that all these high-tech systems could be hacked, and they would need to have navigators who knew how to get where they were going without modern instruments.

“Unless you drop your sextant overboard or crush it underfoot like Ahab does in Chapter 118 of Moby Dick, you’re in like Flynn” if you know celestial navigation, he said. 

Celestial navigation does require a few tools, including the yearly edition of the Nautical Almanac, a set of sight reduction tables, a reliable watch set to Greenwich Mean Time, a pencil, a notepad, a sextant and some patience.

The sextant is the biggest investment involved in the whole enterprise, ranging in cost from a couple hundred dollars for a used and functional instrument to upwards of $2,000 for a high-end brass Plath sextant. Mr. Berson gives a good overview of the benefits and drawbacks of different models of sextants in the book.

The book assumes the reader knows the basics of coastal navigation — being able to plot a course and use dead reckoning — all skills that are relatively simple to master when one can see one’s destination. 

But offshore, with no point of land for reference, is where the sun and moon, four visible planets and 57 navigational stars become “lighthouses in the sky,” as they were called by legendary navigator George Mixter, quoted by Mr. Berson in the book.

David Berson with a sail hand-painted by some of his students, hanging proudly on the side of Aldo’s coffee shop facing Greenport’s Mitchell Park.

At the heart of celestial navigation is a basic trigonometric concept — using the position of the sun relative to the horizon at a given time of day to gauge the navigator’s position on earth. This is done by extrapolating what is known as the “geographical position” of the sun, which is essentially the spot on the surface of the earth where a straight line between the sun’s position and the center of the earth would fall.

Chew on that for a few minutes. Let it sink in. And then, let Mr. Berson’s book be a guide to how you get to knowing where you are from here.

Along the way, Mr. Berson drops breadcrumbs of seasoned advice. For instance, there are many different sets of sight reduction tables, and, he says, “crusty navigators will argue endlessly over the benefits of one set of sight reduction tables over another. Pay no attention. The ultimate accuracy of a celestial observation has much less to do with the sight reduction tables and much more on your ability with the sextant.”

That said, Mr. Berson’s favorite table is a simple one, called HO249 or “Sight Reduction Tables for Air Navigation.”

“Don’t be fooled,” he writes. “These tables are perfect for sailors.”

These simple tables fit right in with Mr. Berson’s focus on making celestial navigation work for everyone who attempts to learn the skill.

“These tables were developed to get the 90-day wonders out on PT boats in the middle of the Pacific during World War II,” he said. “They had to know celestial navigation, or they would never have found these little islands. They had to get pilots from America to England to deliver planes. Celestial navigation as a science was completely transformed during World War II to make it easier for people. For sailers and pilots, to do celestial navigation was essential.”

Mr. Berson said he knew he’d managed to boil down the essence of the subject matter when he recently heard from Rose Witte, the first mate on the replica of the Amistad, based in Connecticut. Ms. Witte told him she’d had success using his book to explain celestial navigation to inner city high school students on board the ship.

In a sense, the experience of writing this book brought Mr. Berson full circle, back to a time when he visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his father and was transfixed with a painting of two sailors taking a noon sight, Winslow Homer’s “Eight Bells.” At the time, he had no idea what they were doing, but he knew that he wanted to learn. His one unwavering request of his publisher was that that painting would be on the dust jacket of the book.

“When you’re out at sea and you’re doing like six knots — seven and a quarter miles per hour — you’ve got a lot of time on your hands,” he said. “You could either read trashy Harold Robbins novels, you could sleep a lot, lounge around, press the buttons and find out where you are, or you could engage in a traditional methodology that will connect you more to the environment you’re actually in — the time the sun is rising, the stars are rising and setting, their position in the sky — all this should be part and parcel of why people go offshore. I’m not a racer. I don’t go around the buoys. To me it’s about being out in the middle of the ocean and experiencing as close to a religious experience as I will ever have in my life.”

“Celestial Navigation” is available at Burton’s Books in Greenport and at the many online places where books are sold.

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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