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Sailing with Charlie: Navigation

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Nautical navigation has come a long way in the last four decades. In 1980 GPS was only just over the horizon (pun intended) for private use. The most advanced nav. tool was the ‘Sat Nav’ and it worked from the signal coming from only one satellite by using the doppler effect. In other words, the signal was weak as the satellite came over the horizon, became stronger at its zenith and then weakened again as it approached the opposite horizon. You would only get one or two reliable fixes in a 24-hour period.

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Graphics by Anouk Sylvestre
Graphics by Anouk Sylvestre

Now there are about 24 satellites up there providing so much info we can get updated positions every few seconds, thus making through hull speed impellers almost obsolete. Many mariners today don’t even know what a paper chart looks like and have no idea how to work out dead (derived from deduced, and not how you’ll end up if you get it wrong) reckoning. Taking a three-point fix with a hand bearing compass would be challenging, as would drawing latitude and longitude and even working out distance using degrees and minutes. 

Chart plotters make navigation easy but traditional navigation is still mandatory and knowing how to plot your position on a paper chart is essential. So many maritime disasters happen when novice sailors rely too heavily on their electronic devices, enter difficult anchorages at night and get into trouble. The answer is always: heave to some ten miles offshore, watch your drift carefully and wait till daylight. As captain you may hear this, “George, I haven’t had a hot shower in three days, a bed that’s not rocking around the clock and a meal that’s not served up in a bowl. Go in NOW!” But be firm, as captain that’s your job.

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Chart plotters are useful, no doubt about it, but have had an adverse effect on wildlife. The Fekawe bird has joined the endangered species list. It used to be that the Fekawe was everywhere hovering over charter boats like the ubiquitous laughing gull. Hard to see but audible for miles it would screech ‘Where the Fekawe, where the Fekawe?

But another feathered friend has been reported – and it’s on the increase, like the invasive lionfish. It too has a loud and raucous screech and has been reported by several witnesses around large catamarans that fail to make a tack, especially when close to a rocky and dangerous lee shore. It’s the ‘Wappenin’ and has been known to defecate on deck, again like the laughing gull. Whatever you do don’t feed them.  

The challenges of navigation have always been there but now with all the high-tech devices at hand, it’s easy to become complacent. Have the traditional nav. skills in your portfolio. If all your instruments fail for whatever reason, remember the north star, how to locate it and how to measure its angle from the horizon – that angle is your latitude – and that’s half the battle. For more accuracy become conversant with the sextant and have the tables and almanac aboard. Without sextant skills, if longitude is uncertain and there are hazards in your path – slow down, keep a good lookout from as high as possible, watch the depth. That’s how they did it in the old days. 

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Julian Putley is the author of ‘The Drinking Man’s Guide to the BVI’, ‘Sunfun Calypso’, and ‘Sunfun Gospel’.

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