To those who know celestial navigation, it must surely seem profound that finding the future requires gazing upon the flickering infinity of the past.

For competitors in the Golden Globe race, starlight is more than profound; it is imperative. There are no GPS chart plotters allowed. And if you reach for the satellite phone in the event of an emergency, life-saving as it may be, you are automatically disqualified.

Rules is rules.

Decoding the firmament above is the only way to win the 28 000 nautical mile non-stop solo odyssey that sets off in September for only the third time in the past 51 years.

Which is why, while most South Africans have spent the past month cursing blackouts, two South Africans have been doing exactly the opposite – relishing undiluted starlight as they brush up on their race skills. Jeremy Bagshow and Kirsten Neuschafer have been stargazing their way northwards towards the starting line in France, honing their skills and steeling themselves for the inevitable pre-race frenzy awaiting them.

Jeremy Bagshaw
Jeremy Bagshaw. Credit-Simon McDonnell

“I’ve actually kept the GPS on but I’ve been doing celestial navigation for practice so that I feel confident,” confided Kirsten in a telephone interview from St Miguel. “When the GPS goes off (at the start of the Race), I must know I can really determine where I am, by using old school logs.”

Kirsten has every right to feel confident ahead of the Globe, and not just because of her navigational skills. Her voyage to the starting line, now almost complete, has been nothing less than epic. It began in Newfoundland, Canada, where she bought her boat, a Cape George 36. Travel delays caused by a Coronavirus lockdown meant she ran out of time to sail it home and ended up iced in on Price Edward Island where she ended up doing extensive boat renovations while waiting for the sea to thaw.

Despite some heavy seas when she finally got underway, it was relatively plain sailing back to Cape Town, except for some leaky portholes – a sealant issue related to the age of the boat. “It was probably still the original sealant they used 35 years ago, which had become brittle,” Kirsten elaborated. “The boat was taking some pretty big seas which were whacking the portholes, and so it began leaking through the frames.”

Apart from that, Kirsten arrived home confident that her vessel was up to one of sailing’s ultimate challenges – the 28 000 nautical mile unassisted circumnavigation. “The boat performed really well – it surpassed my expectations in terms of speed,” she said, adding that she was also able to assess her rigging needs.  “It’s a fast boat but a heavy boat, possibly the heaviest in the fleet, and so it needs sail area to carry it through the light winds. I know I need good light wind sails – it would not be a good thing if the fleet overtakes me while I’m bobbing around in the doldrums.”

She is quick to applaud Geoff Meek from North Sails as her sailmaker mentor and confidante who is helping her with her final sail selection – she is allowed a maximum of ten.

From Cape Town Kirsten still had the 6 000 nm trek up north, this time in light running conditions which again allowed her to calibrate her equipment for what lies ahead. “I could play around with those sails,” she said of the trip so far. She now awaits a final piece of equipment before setting off for France in a few days time. She confides she is not looking forward to the inevitable pre-race hype and media awaiting her at Les Sables-d’Olonne. Nor has she appreciated the mountains of obligatory paperwork and admin that accompany her race preparation. She explained: “Most of the pressure and anxiety isn’t thinking about the actual race and being out there it is about missing all the deadlines and the pressure that organisers put on you.”

Partly her pre-race stresses have been offset by an unexpected camaraderie with one of her would-be rivals – compatriot Jeremy Bagshaw, who set off north at a similar time. The two hadn’t met before Kirsten arrived from Canada, but they ended up comparing notes and assisting each other wherever possible. They even studied their Survival at Sea Course together in St Helena Bay. “When I arrived Jeremy immediately contacted me and said we should meet up. He really helped me source stuff in Cape Town. I think there’s definitely a bit of camaraderie, and I see him more as an ally than an opponent.”

The feeling is mutual, according to Jeremy, who took time out from waterborne engine repairs about 800 NM South West of Lands End to update SABBEX on his progress. “For me to help Kirsten find the best suppliers and skills she needed to get her boat ready was similarly easy to do and anyone in my position would have done the same,” said Jeremy. “She is also an exceptionally experienced and competent sailor and has a whole range of skills that I don’t have which she was prepared to share with me. Her experience of sailing and spending extended periods of time in the high latitudes of the southern ocean is something I don’t have and I was grateful to receive her advice on such topics as clothing systems that work best in that environment. We have jokingly agreed that that all ends at 13h00 UTC on 4 September!”

During their lengthy Atlantic passage they’ve kept in regular contact via HF radio chat, partly for safety but also to check their HF sets over varying distances. “In the end we chatted very briefly, every couple of days to see how each other’s weather was and what sort of progress we were making. For me it was quite important to know that she wasn’t out performing me with her boat on this initial leg as we had never had the chance to sail against each other! Fortunately we took sufficiently different routes to get north for both of us to say that the results were inconclusive!” Jeremy said.

The Capetonian, who spent several months outfitting his boat at the False Bay Yacht Club, Jeremy has also been using his journey to trial his upgraded celestial navigation skills, which he admits were much-needed in his case: “I am a product of the digital age and my first ocean crossing in 1985 coincided with the introduction of the earliest recreational Satnav equipment. It was a Walker 412 and if you were lucky, it would give you a position to within a couple of miles every few hours! But it meant that there was no need for sextants and all the tables that go with reducing the sights to useable information.”

Jeremy Bagshaw
Jeremy Bagshaw. Credit-Simon McDonnell

“I have found the experience of getting the hang of celestial wonderful and it certainly helps me feel more connected to the natural world around me. I know I will miss the certainty of being absolutely sure of my position in dangerous waters and in conditions where it’s not possible to get a sight of a heavenly body but I’ll just have to adapt my sailing style to allow for that.”

Kirsten says the potential margin for error with celestial navigation is all part of the challenge. “You kind of wing it — it’s called dead reckoning (actually comes from deduced reckoning rather than dead),” she explained when prompted.  “So, you log your progress all the time: we have an old school trailing log- a propeller which you drag behind the boat, and spins as it is being pulled through the water. It counts your nautical miles through the water. Your miles logged, together with your compass course over a time period, will give you an estimate of where you are. That’s provided your compass is accurate, and your trailing log is too, and you’re not in any currents that you’re unaware of. Error can become quite big quite quickly.”

A little-known fact among landlubbers is that celestial navigation is better in twilight conditions and not in inky blackness. The reason?  One needs a handle on the horizon: “Taking sights off stars is actually limited only to the twilight hours, or if you had a very bright moon – as you need to be able to see the horizon very clearly in order to get your angle to the horizon. In the absolute dark of night, it’s very difficult to take a sight.”

It’s also difficult to see a pristine sky, even in mid-ocean, says Kirsten of the lost romance of yesteryear. “You see a lot of moving satellites, anywhere on the planet, although they are usually quite subtle,” said Kirsten. “The further out you are, the clearer the sky becomes (provided no clouds or fog)- and that at least, must give a good idea of what the firmament used to be like. In the Southern Ocean, you do not see many contrails and aeroplanes, nor much shipping, so things feel quite isolated and untouched, but it’s often overcast and foggy down there. That’s quite different in the Northern Hemisphere and anywhere closer to land where you see the loom of cities, contrails, nav lights of aeroplanes and shipping.”

One suspects right now the Saffers will be happy just to see the Race starting line.

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