March 1, 2005
Warderick Wells, Bahamas
24° 22.40 North
076° 36.54 South

So, Who's Keeping Track?

By Douglas Bernon


We walked the length of the the white powdery sand beach on the east shore of Shroud Cay in the Exumas.

As a little boy, immersed in Batman and Superman comic books, and imagining my own super-powers, the fantasies were not just about flying or x-ray vision or other-worldly strength — although those would’ve been nifty — as much as they were about the potential pleasures and safeguard of being invisible. What child, or adult for that matter, hasn’t wanted to spy on parents or eavesdrop on what friends were saying when they thought we weren’t in earshot? No doubt, this voyeuristic dream was one of my unconscious motivations to become a psychologist.

Then in college, after reading Catch 22, in which Major Major Major Major would only agree to meet with his underlings, in his office, when he was not there, I better understood the protection provided by not being found. In cruising, this is one of the sweeter ironies. Like children playing hide and seek, we want it both ways: to be invisible but also to be discovered. It’s the reason we carry EPIRBS, GPIRBS, flares, and radios with emergency distress capabilities. When push comes to shove, in the face of real trouble, we want very much to be found, and quickly.


Bernadette at sunrise on the Bahama Banks. We're just raising anchor and taking off again after resting for a few hours on the shallows after crossing the Gulf Stream.

In writing our “Log Of Ithaka” for BoatUS, Bernadette and I have straddled this fence. While we post logs from wherever we are, by the day the log goes up on the web, we might’ve moved on a bit. The coordinates we put at the top of this page are scrupulously accurate for the day the story is submitted, but they’re like a boat’s wake, a snapshot in time of a movement that’s ongoing. But every so often, our family or some concerned friend writes or emails, for some reason or another, wanting to know where we are exactly, right now, not realizing that saying where you are on a sailboat, from day to day, is a little like trying to nail butter to a warm wall.

At least it was until last summer, when we met the folks at Horizon Marine in Marion, Massachusetts. They lent us one of their experimental “boat trackers” (now mounted on our bow sprit), which sends them via satellite an update of our speed and position every two hours, which they in turn use to create a track on their website. My 86-year-old mother, who died last month, used to love this. She was able to follow our actual position on the internet by going to www.iboattrack.com. It made the voyage real to her, and she thoroughly enjoyed following our progress, sometimes day to day.

Ithaka shown by Iboattrack on a Maptech chart, in Blue Hill Harbor, Maine in the summer of 2004
Ithaka at anchor

When you click on the www.iboattrack.com home page, then on “Track Data,” this shows you Ithaka’s track, and those of several boats you can follow. Depending on which one you choose, it takes you to the relevant Maptech chart where a small symbol of the vessel is superimposed precisely where the longitude and latitude indicate.


Ithaka's Iboattrack-track during the summer of 2004

This exactitude means people can discover just what slugs we can be when we like a place. If you click instead on “raw position,” you get several days of positions by longitude, latitude, speed, and distance traveled. You can also see an electronic trail of breadcrumbs showing where the boat’s been since it got its tracker.

There are a slew of other bells and whistles to play with, but most importantly, it pinpoints location every two hours. Our friends who know we’ve added this new gizmo sometimes check on our current position and then chide us in e-mails with queries like this: “Good God, are you STILL there?” The answer is often “Yes, we are very pokey people.”


Horizon's scientists - (L to R) Steve Anderson, Patrice Coholan and James W. Feeney -- holding one of their loop current trackers

The www.iboattrack.com tracker is effortless for us, but we admit it’s a mixed blessing. Just having this electronic tattle-tale on board means we relinquish some privacy, but for Bernadette and me, and the way we’re cruising and writing, it’s also fun to share our journey. For my mother though, www.iboattrack.com was more than just a novelty. Worried always, she could check up on us without our ever knowing. She liked that alot, and so did we.

Bernadette and I know some large yachts who carry splendid tracking systems, and in fact, our ham-based Winlink e-mail system has a position reporting capability built in, although we rarely use it. Ocean racers are generally required to carry some form of tracker, but among small yachts, they’ve been uncommon. This past year, however, we’ve noticed new offerings on the market – for satellite weather and communications systems – that now include tracking features. Among the toys we’ve lusted after, trackers never made the list. However, once it was offered, we couldn’t resist trying it.


Horizon Marine is not actually in the sailboat tracking business, yet, but they wanted to test some gear, and we have friends in common, Frank and Lynda on Simba, to whom they also gave a tracker. Simba suggested we might like to play with one, too.

Since the early 1980s Horizon Marine, Inc. (www.horizonmarine.com) has been engaged in tracking far more complicated movements than sailboats. They’re an oceanographic services firm that specializes in operational oceanography. They’re the folks who the guys on the oil drilling rigs in the Sea of Trinidad and


The diagram of the Eddy Model reveals the enormity of this system.
Gulf of Mexico rely on for safety information. The crews out there need to know not only which way the wind is blowing, but how the water is moving too. Horizon developed a system for monitoring the sometimes gargantuan eddies that are spun off by the Loop Current. The loop is created as the Caribbean Current goes crashing through the narrow opening of the Yucatan Straits into the Gulf of Mexico, moves in a clockwise circle, and then exits again and merges with the Gulf Stream on its way north. The loop is a monster force that Offshore Engineer Magazine, described as a “hurricane beneath the water.”

When the Loop Current extends far north into the Gulf of Mexico, it can spin off eddies which are also immensely powerful, and potentially dangerous. The eddies can run at four knots and extend over hundreds of miles go down hundreds of feet. Migrating in their own idiosyncratic orbits, Horizon keeps track of them, which is big news for anyone working and living on the oil rigs, because they have to know when the gorillas are on the march.


The innards of the tracker fit easily in a small, waterproof container.

Several times a month, Horizon dispatches a small airplane packed with a slew of 38-inch-long, five-inch diameter, white plastic tubes filled with a GPS, flashlight batteries, and the hardware for transmitting information back to them on land. Salting the areas that they’re interested in with these drogued buoys, Horizon tracks their movement and the eddies they hitch rides upon. Combined with infrared satellite imagery, altimetry, and remote sensing, they compile a weekly publication called EddyWatch.


We sailed from Miami across the Gulf Stream and entered the Bahama Banks just north of North Rock.

Horizon is owned and managed by oceanographic scientists who are also serious bluewater mariners. They have professional expertise in weather, hydrography, and technology. As practical businessmen, they know there’s no mass market for sailboat-tracking units, but they’re a curious lot and wanted to see how well an experimental unit works over time and distance.

The unit they lent us is 6.5” x 1” x 9”. We lashed it to the bow pulpit and haven’t touched it since. I don’t know how many hits www.iboattrack.com is getting for information about Ithaka, but I figure my mother was good for at least one a day, logging onto her WebTV and keeping a watchful eye on her errant son. Somehow, her knowing where we were, even if only electronically on a glowing screen, comforted her. While that knowledge could not diminish the physical distance, it helped each of us feel closer this past year. That’s technology at its best.


From Apollo 17, courtesy of NASA, the official tracker of the Earth
Note To Readers

This Log Of Ithaka, posted on March 1, 2005, describes the winning services of Horizon Marine for the 12-month period that Ithaka had one of their ingenious battery-operated trackers on board. The Ithaka tracker was returned to Horizon in July 2005 with our sincere thanks. This means that from July onward, linking to the IboatTrack site will no longer show Ithaka's current position.

Horizon has now become the tracking system of choice for fleets competing in prestigious events such as the Marion To Bermuda Race and the Bermuda One Two. Individuals, or event organizers, who wish to lease a tracker should contact the company through their website, listed above.