Blindfold Navigation

Prior to the 1940s and the evolution of electronic navigation during World War II, approaching any land mass from the sea was far more difficult than it is today. Radar was still years away for the non-military sailor and that art of navigation depended largely on one’s ability to identify prominent headlands, distant buildings, sea buoys – and at night, the lights which flashed atop different nautical markers and lighthouses.

During a rain squall or bound in by fog, it was best to stand off until the weather cleared. Navigating with only a compass and a lead line tossed from the bow to measure water depth was often a chance proposition when normal visibility was impaired.

On the sparsely populated coastlines of the Pacific Northwest of 1940, lighthouses, navigational beacons and fog horns were virtually nonexistent. Mariners relied upon local knowledge, often passed from father to son, to navigate the treacherous channels and currents. Since the charts and tide tables of the area were far from accurate, wayfaring yachts like the Magician were extremely rare, unless captianed by an extremely skilled and competent sailor, confident enough in his dead reckoning skills to navigate solely with compass and sextant. Although possessing such skills, the purpose of L. Ron Hubbard’s voyage was not only to lessen the danger of this coastline, but to make navigation an easier, more reliable science upon any ocean of earth.

Before the sextant, the ship’s compass was the most reliable navigation instrument. Together with a ships clock and a log line to measure distance traveled and boat speed, with a compass one could always estimate one’s position. The sextant changed that estimate into a finer accuracy. A ship’s position at sea was fixed by a celestial sight – which required skillful use of sextant, and observable horizon and clear skies to measure the angles of the sun, moon or stars. Celestial navigation also required an understanding of mathematics and the various equations needed to arrive at a final position that could be plotted on a chart. But the sextant lacked the accuracy needed in tight quarters, and could do nothing for a vessel seeking the entrance to a channel in the fog or darkness.

The radio direction finder was the first of the modern navigational devices to evolve. The transmission waves from normal AM-band radio broadcasts traveled hundreds of miles, and while they do bend and curve around the surface of the earth, they travel in relatively straight lines. With the use of a compass and a special antenna, it was found that the direction from which a radio signal emanated could be determined. With bearings taken of two radio stations identified on a chart, the point where they intersected would be close to the ship’s actual position.

There was one major drawback, however. Hours of complex calculations were necessary to correct deviations in the readings from the direction finder as the true surface of the earth becomes a complex curve when it has to be drawn on a flat navigational chart. A navigator was required to first estimate the vessel’s position and then correct the radio signal bearings by using a complicated formula based on the initial estimate. Only then could intersecting lines be plotted to show the vessel’s position, and accuracy depended on both earlier estimate of position and the quality of the mathematics.

Because this was so complex and so time consuming, radio direction finding was often useless in dangerous waters when instant results were needed. But Ron had found a possible solution to this dilemma – one that would circumvent the complexities and make radio direction finding nearly instantaneous.

In January 1940, seven months prior to his expedition, Ron set about bringing his theory into reality. Applying trigonometry and advanced mathematics he developed a universal formula for the correction of radio signal’s bearings anywhere so that the earth’s curved surface could be swiftly converted and used on a navigational chart.

With this formula, he theorized that a simple instrument with a dial and moveable arms could be made which would allow one to bypass the mathematics and actually read longitude and latitude directly from the device. As all charts have longitude and latitude marked on them, a vessel’s position could thus be plotted in seconds.

With the Magician duly outfitted with a sturdy receiver and a special loop antenna for determining radio station direction, and with charts showing the locations of all the broadcast stations from Seattle to Ketchikan to the Aleutians, Ron set out to test this revolutionary navigational aid.

During the five months of his Alaskan expedition Ron made tests of the nomograph under a great variety of conditions and distances. They were a resounding success and proved that the nomograph greatly speeded and expanded the accuracy of radio direction finding.

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