Astronavigation and Stargazing

PAUL STAINTON: This week we’re looking to the skies. It’s all part of Stargazing Live, which returns for a second three night series on BBC2. Events have been organised right across the country, while the main one here will be in our very own Flag Fen. Boldly looking where no-one has looked before. And this morning we’re talking to someone who uses the starts quite a lot to navigate from one place to another. A very good morning to Lt. Cdr Roy Malkin from the Royal Naval Reserve. Good morning sir.
ROY MALKIN: hello. How are you?
PAUL STAINTON: I’m fine. How are you?
ROY MALKIN: I’m fine thanks.
PAUL STAINTON: Should I salute?
ROY MALKIN: Oh no. Just call me Roy.
PAUL STAINTON: (LAUGHS) Alright Roy. Now, you don’t really still use the stars, do you?
ROY MALKIN: Yes. It’s still vital in our trade. We don’t use it as the main way of doing things, but it’s always a very very useful backup.
PAUL STAINTON: When you’re looking at the stars, is it something you consciously look at and think, beautiful, it’s lovely, or is it just a part of your job of work?
ROY MALKIN: Well have you heard of John Masefield and Sea-Fever? (see below) And he says in that, all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by. Anyone on the bridge of a ship, if they can see a star, can steer it by the star. You can actually work out which direction you’re going.
ROY MALKIN: Well you’re aware of the North Star? If you can find the North Star you know which way north is. And that way you can actually see which way the stars are actually revolving in the sky. And all stars actually rise in the east. And they all set in the weat. So if you can see which stars are rising, and which ones are setting, you know which way east and west is. So you know north, east and west, just by looking at the stars.
PAUL STAINTON: Sounds tricky Roy.
ROY MALKIN: Oh it’s not that tricky. If you just watch it you can actually see what’s going on. It’s just a question of looking at the sky.
PAUL STAINTON: Do the stars look different at sea Roy?
ROY MALKIN: They look much much better, because in actual fact the problem you have inland is light pollution. And when we go to sea there’s no light pollution. So you get an absolutely superb view of the sky.
PAUL STAINTON: So this is called astronavigation is it? If all your systems fail, you’re confident you can get home from say the Falklands or somewhere.
ROY MALKIN: Well in actual fact all our young officers are taught how to do it. And the reason they’re taught how to do it is one of the easiest things to take off people is their ability to navigate with GPS. GPS is very very vulnerable.
PAUL STAINTON: Right. So everybody could navigate their own way by the stars, whoever’s running a ship?
ROY MALKIN: In theory they could.
ROY MALKIN: And the thing about it is it’s all a matter of practice. Now we have different levels of navigators within the Navy. Our junior officers are taught how to do it, but we have a whole breed of people and we all train them here, which are called Specialist Navigators. And they are in-depth experts in that field.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. Is it right that people did use astronavigation during the Falklands conflict?
ROY MALKIN: Yes. Well I’m getting a bit old now, but I was in the Falklands, and we did all our navigation during the Falklands using both stars and using the sun as well.
ROY MALKIN: We didn’t have any .. on the ship I was on we didn’t have any electronic navigation aids which worked, down in the Falklands. It was all done by astro.
PAUL STAINTON: So when you’ve got somebody shooting at you, or potentially shooting at you, you’ve got to be darn certain you’ve got it right.
ROY MALKIN: Oh yes. Indeed. I was on a ship that we actually brought back the troops from South Georgia to the Falklands. And wehad to get back into what was called the total exclusion zone. And we had a ten mile backdoor to go into that, which we had to go through, and we had to make sure where we were by astro. And if you didn’t go through that back door, you would get engaged.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. And you could have been another eneral Belgrano if you ..
ROY MALKIN: Well yes. Very much so.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. Dearie me. A bit nervous, were you?
ROY MALKIN: Blase at that stage. We were happy that we were a good 200 miles from the Falklands. And we thought that we’d got our own people, and they’re going to be nice to us. But the bad things were happening actually round the Falklands or on the other side.
PAUL STAINTON: So the stars are special for you then Roy?
ROY MALKIN: I like looking at them, and I must admit that one of the joys of my job is that I get the chance when I’m at sea to actually look at the night sky.
PAUL STAINTON: Roy, lovely to talk to you this morning. Thank you for coming on. Lt. Cdr Roy Malkin from the Royal Naval Reserve, who’s served in the Falklands, and did all his shipping around by astronavigation, just looking at the stars. So not only are they beautiful, very important as well. Don’t forget, Stargazing Live returns for a second three night series on BBC2. It’s going to be great. The bloke from D:Ream does it.

07:55 Thursday 12th January 2012
Peterborough Breakfast Show
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire



I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

By (English Poet Laureate, 1930-1967.)