Waypoints—Boon or Bane?

Nine years ago we set out with a super-tight itinerary that looked quite feasible sitting on the couch, but approaching a burn-out we soon stopped rushing and started enjoying… Of course it is tempting to visit as many famous places as possible in a limited time. However, such a “Been there, done it!” approach leaves merely a blur of memories behind. Often, people don’t remember the names of the islands they have visited, and sometimes don’t even know the name of the one they are currently at. 

Timing, slack water and visibility can be tricky. Photo By Birgit Hackl and Christian Feldbauer
Timing, slack water and visibility can be tricky. Photos By Birgit Hackl and Christian Feldbauer

With so little time allocated for a place, none is left for proper research like studying charts and satellite images, finding protected anchorages for different conditions, reading about restrictions and regulations, places of interest, endangered wildlife, etc. Instead, electronic cruising guides and “compendia” are conveniently scanned solely for waypoints to find the next anchorage, or waypoints are requested from other boats at the last minute.

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Relying on waypoints for both anchorages and passage routes can be dangerous. Cruising blogs and compendia are unfortunately full of bad or incomplete recommendations and generalizations from one-sample observations. For instance, “an anchorage with good holding” although it is in deep water densely strewn with healthy coral heads, or frequently waypoints for “the well-protected anchorage” are posted without mentioning in what wind direction and swell conditions people were anchored there. Waypoints are surely very convenient, but particularly for newbies it is not obvious whether a recommendation is good or bad.

Lagoon sailing. Photos By Birgit Hackl and Christian Feldbauer
Lagoon sailing. Photos By Birgit Hackl and Christian Feldbauer

Even highly renowned and praised publications have to be used with care and common sense. Following Jimmy Cornell’s waypoints (World Cruising Routes 5th. Ed.) from Grenada to Bonaire keeps you (as promised) at a safe distance from the Islas Los Roques, but, without further double-checking, could lead you straight over the Islas Las Aves…

Adequate care is necessary when following routes for entrances or lagoon crossings. Is it surely deep enough? Did the author mention tides, currents, or obstacles? How old is the recommendation? Sand bars move, locals install fish traps, etc.. The same caution is necessary when using GPS tracks copied from others: never follow blindly, but double-check with current charts and satellite images and keep a lookout. We record our tracks whenever we change anchorage or sail across a lagoon and mark coral heads along the way. Some of our tracks we declare ‘safe highways’ usable in an emergency even without adequate visibility, but we would never trust a track copied from somebody else.

*Deceptive precision

Anchorage waypoints should always only be considered as marks for a possible anchoring area. It is simply not possible to find a small sand patch surrounded by coral heads when (blindly) heading for a waypoint, not even when it has three or more decimal digits and also not when a spot has been extracted from satellite pictures. 

Precision work. Photos By Birgit Hackl and Christian Feldbauer
Precision work. Photos By Birgit Hackl and Christian Feldbauer

There are several sources of error: 

  1. The GPS fix may be a couple of meters off.
  2. Boats have their GPS antennas at different positions, usually at the stern and hardly ever at the bow from where the anchor is dropped, so there is already a possible offset of a full boat length.
  3. Boats arrive from different directions. Imagine you approach an anchorage from a certain direction and create a GPS mark when the bow is over the desired sandy spot. When you (or other boats) head for this spot from the opposite direction, the right position is already reached when the GPS tells you the waypoint is still two boat lengths away…
  4. Also satellite images often have an offset. More than once we observed discrepancies in the order of 70 ft or more when comparing images from different providers (e.g. Bing and Google). Unfortunately it is not easy to say up front which one is more accurate.

The only way to anchor successfully in such small sandy spots is to have somebody at the bow who precisely directs the helmsperson. This also requires good visibility, that is, a blue sky with the sun high up to avoid surface reflections and shallow water (< 30 ft) to see the bottom clearly and without much misleading refraction.

Pitufa highways. Photos By Birgit Hackl and Christian Feldbauer
Pitufa highways. Photos By Birgit Hackl and Christian Feldbauer

Proper research about a cruising destination is essential, ideally already before sailing there. Waypoints should always be used with sufficient caution and double-checked. Using common sense and seamanship, the necessary skill set to objectively judge info found in guides or blogs can quickly be developed, and when the itinerary is not too tight, it is great fun to explore and find good and pretty anchorages on your own. We see cruising as a constant learning process. It seems to us, many rush from waypoint to waypoint like from ride to ride in an amusement park. Unlike Disney World, cruising is not fool-proof, accidents happen.

Birgit Hackl
Birgit Hackl, Christian Feldbauer and ship’s cat Leeloo have been exploring the world on their yacht Pitufa since 2011. Visit their blog: www.pitufa.at