Do Sailors Still Use Sextants?


Sextants have been an important navigational tool used in sailing since the 18th century, and despite modern electronic navigation systems, they remain a popular choice for sailors around the world today.

In this article, we will explore what a sextant is, how it is used in modern sailing, the advantages it offers and the skills required to effectively use it. We will also discuss how keeping up-to-date with the latest developments in sextant technology is essential in order to ensure accuracy and precision when navigating with this device.

Definition of Sextants and their Importance in Sailing

A sextant is an instrument used for navigation that enables sailors to measure angles between heavenly bodies such as stars, planets and the moon, as well as terrestrial objects such as lighthouses or other ships at sea from their own vessel’s position on the water.

By measuring these angles, sailors are then able to accurately calculate their location, direction and distance from other points at sea using a process known as celestial navigation or ‘dead reckoning’ – which is still widely used by sailors today even though modern electronic navigation systems are increasingly being adopted by ships both large and small around the world.

History of Sextants

The first practical version of a sextant was developed in 1730 by British instrument maker John Hadley (1682-1744) who created a simple quadrant-like device that could be used on board ships at sea for celestial navigation purposes – although its accuracy was limited due to its design which only allowed measurements up to 90°, thus requiring two readings to be taken from different positions on board ship before calculations could be made.

Subsequent advances in technology led to the development of more reliable instruments with greater accuracy such as the octant (which allowed measurements up to 180°) which was developed by Thomas Godfrey (1704-1749) during 1730 – 1731 and then later refined by another British inventor John Campbell (1706-1778) during 1759 – 1760 who created what became known as a ‘Hadley’s Octant’ or ‘Hadley’s Quadrant’ which was widely adopted by 18th century mariners around the world due to its improved accuracy compared with earlier versions of this type of instrument.

The modern day version of this device is known as a ‘sextant’ which can measure angles up to 120° – allowing mariners to make more precise calculations when navigating at sea using celestial navigation methods than ever before possible with earlier versions of this type of instrument.

How Sextants are Used Today

Today, many vessels still carry traditional mechanical or digital versions of these instruments onboard for navigational purposes – although most modern ships also employ sophisticated electronic navigation systems that can provide exact positions on board ship more quickly and accurately than ever before possible using traditional methods such as celestial navigation or ‘dead reckoning’ techniques when determining location at sea without having access to land based aids such as lighthouses or GPS signals from satellites orbiting Earth’s atmosphere above our heads (which can be blocked by clouds or heavy weather conditions).

Despite this however, many professional mariners still prefer to use a traditional mechanical or digital version of this type of instrument when navigating due its simplicity compared with some electronic navigational systems – plus its ability to provide accurate results even when there are no external aids available such as GPS signals from satellites above us or land based lighthouses visible from our current position on board ship at sea!

Types Of Sextants Available

The types of sextants available vary depending on factors such as price range and quality but generally speaking, they can be divided into two main categories: analog mechanical models (which usually require more skill when operating but offer greater accuracy than lower priced digital models) and digital models (which tend to be less expensive but often lack some features found on higher quality analog mechanical models).

Advantages Of Using A Sextant For Sailing

When it comes to sailing there are several advantages associated with using a sextant over other forms navigational tools including: ease-of-use, reliability, accuracy, flexibility, portability, cost effectiveness, plus it does not require any external sources such as GPS signals from satellites or land based lighthouses for accurate results when determining one’s location at sea!

The Necessary Skills Required To Use A Sextant

In order for one to gain proficiency in using a sextant there are several key skills that must be learnt including: how read & interpret star charts accurately, identifying stars & constellations in night skies, taking accurate readings & measurements with an astrolabe/sextant, understanding principles related spherical trigonometry & spherical geometry, plus knowledge related maritime law & regulations regarding navigational aids & instruments onboard vessels etc…

All these skills require significant amounts practice & dedication before becoming proficient in using an astrolabe/sextant effectively whilst sailing at sea!

Challenges Posed By The Use Of Sextants Today

Despite all its advantages however, there are several challenges posed today when it comes to relying solely upon traditional methods such as celestial navigation for determining location at sea including: limited visibility due bad weather conditions obscuring night skies, reliance upon outdated charts/maps if not regularly updated/replaced etc…

All these potential issues must be taken into account when selecting navigational equipment onboard vessels – particularly those operating over long distances where access external sources aid like GPS signals may not always be available!

The Importance Of Keeping Up-To-Date With Sextant Skills And Knowledge

In order ensure accuracy & precision when navigating using an astrolabe/septent it is essential that all those crewing vessels stay familiar with latest developments related both technology – including new types instruments available – plus new procedures related maritime law & regulations regarding navigational equipment onboard ships!

This includes attending regular training sessions ensure everyone onboard fully aware both current capabilities offered traditional methods like celestial navigation plus any potential issues associated relying solely upon them during periods poor visibility due adverse weather conditions etc… All these activities essential maintain both safety security those crewing vessels out sea!

Sextant Accuracy And Precision

When correctly operated, modern day astrolabes/septents offer high degrees both accuracy precision far exceeding what possible earlier versions same type instrument – plus recent technological advances mean digital models now available offer comparable levels detail against higher priced analog mechanical models similar devices! This means even relatively inexperienced crews can achieve satisfactory results their navigations without having spend considerable amounts money purchasing costly specialist equipment!


Ultimately despite advances electronic navigation systems still aboard vessels today – traditional methods like astrolabes/septents remain popular choice amongst many sailors around world thanks their ease use combined high degree accuracy precision they offer compared newer technologies!

It therefore important everyone crewing ships stays familiar latest developments related both technology also procedures maritime law ensure everyone fully aware current capabilities offered traditional methods like celestial navigation any potential issues associated relying solely upon them during periods poor visibility etc… All these activities essential maintain both safety security those crewing vessels out sea!

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