Where are We?June 20, 2002
David reacquainting himself with his sextant
Ever since the first boats were launched, mariners have considered it important to know where they were. Among other things, it helps to know where you are in order to steer a course to where you want to be and, ultimately, to return home again. Knowing where you are is also handy in avoiding where you don't want to be, like on a pile of rocks or in the middle of a weapons testing range. For these reasons, sailors until recently used to spend a lot of time trying to figure out their position at any given moment. In the really early days of sailing, this involved an intimate knowledge of the heavens and clues derived from wind, waves, currents, clouds, sea birds and other natural phenomena. In the past few centuries, the advent of instruments that detect the earth's magnetic field, measure the angular elevation of various celestial bodies, and precisely mark time made navigation a lot more accurate, but still required a fair bit of time and tedious calculation. Electronic navigation, based first on terrestrial transmitting stations and now on satellites, has changed all of that.
When we left to go cruising full time eight years ago, our navigational equipment comprised a Loran receiver, ship's compass, hand bearing compass, sextant, chronometer, speed and distance log, and various charting tools. Within two months of casting off the docklines in Toronto we were in Annapolis visiting the annual US Sailboat show. We bought our first GPS and promptly fell in love with it. No matter what traditionalists may say, GPS is wonderful and probably accounts more than anything else for the increasing number of recreational vessels poking into every remote nook and cranny on the planet.
Although we both had skill and practice at coastal piloting and David had managed to navigate himself around the Pacific in the mid 1980's with a sextant and not fall off the edge of the earth, we immediately embraced satellite navigation and soon forgot about most of the other navigational paraphernalia on board. The hand bearing compass got buried under a pile of cruising guides. Eileen suggested the box containing David's prized metal sextant was taking up space that could be better used for storing her shells.
As we became more enamoured with the little plastic gadget that, with a touch of a button or two would tell us where we were and where we should be heading, we became more paranoid that it may fail us. The cost of GPS units dropped and we bought first one and then two back-ups. We mounted one handheld GPS by the wheel in the cockpit, kept one down below in the nav station and stowed another in the abandon ship bag (where it hopefully would always remain undisturbed). The convenience and apparent reliability of GPS lulled us into a cosy sense of security.
Events on our recent passage from Florida to North Carolina rudely dispelled that secure feeling. After three days at sea with wind and seas behind us, a cold front moved off Cape Hatteras and conspired to make life more difficult for us. With the clocking wind suddenly on the nose and increasing in strength to 25 knots, we quickly abandoned our original notion of sailing non-stop to Norfolk. Beaufort, NC was only 30 miles away so we ducked out of the Gulf Stream, which was starting to kick up some ugly seas, and headed in. At 1:00 am, after 12 hours of tacking in rain and breaking waves, we finally approached Beaufort Inlet. At the exact moment we were struggling to distinguish the channel lights through our misted up binoculars, the GPS screen went blank.
Holy mackerel, where were we??!! In the rain, the lights on shore blended with the lighted navigation aids. Our depth sounder, which has an annoying tendency to throw out random numbers every once and a while, took this opportunity to inform us that we had two feet of water under the keel. We hove to and David bolted below to get the GPS from the nav station. It had last been used where it was bought, in the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. After powering up, it insisted on being properly initialized. Of course, the manual which explained this procedure was nowhere to be found. David didn't like the idea of drifting around in the approach to a busy shipping channel for the 15 minutes or so it would take for the GPS to get a fix from scratch. He plunged into the abandon ship bag. When he turned on our third GPS, nothing happened. The batteries were dead. Just as he was ripping the boat apart looking for spare AA's, Eileen calmly announced, "The GPS is back on and the depth sounder says we're in 50 feet of water." Whew!
The emergency was short lived and not really life threatening. Even without GPS, we probably would have eventually sorted out the various flashing buoys and cautiously made our way in. In the worst case, we could have turned back to sea and waited for the light of dawn to find the entrance channel. But the point is that we were better sailors before we were seduced by GPS. We paid closer attention to the charts, maintained a series of dead reckoning positions and regularly plotted fixes. We carefully monitored our speed and heading and kept track of the effects of any current or leeway. We were more aware of our surroundings since we had to identify various shore features to establish lines of position. We kept a better lookout because we knew the limitations of our plotted positions. Offshore, David could glance up at the night sky and immediately know which important stars or planets were visible.
We're not about
to throw away our GPS. What we've learned from the Beaufort incident is
the importance of maintaining our other navigational skills. The GPS will
continue to be our primary navigational instrument, but - at least for
the time being - we won't replace the sextant with a shell collection.
Cheers, David & Eileen