By Tom Neale, 2/21/2008
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When you loose
In 2008 another vessel, just under 50 feet long, but costing, I’d guess, close to two million dollars, powered past the same inlet, inside, on the ICW. Buoys marked the way through the shoals. They still exist, although they’re somewhat more under control with dredging. Unlike the clumsy large sailing ships with nothing more than crude celestial navigation, sounding lines and lookouts, this boat was equipped with GPS, chart plotter, computers, depth finder, all state of the art, costing many thousands of dollars. Fixes from satellites correlated to carefully plotted charts told the skipper where he was and what was ahead.
A shoal was ahead. The channel shifted slightly toward the east, as it has for years. The shoal was submerged, but the lighter colored waters over it and the different wave pattern tell clearly of its existence. And it was “ahead” that the boat ran—until it hit the hard sand of the shoal with enough force to mangle its two hugely expensive props spinning below, impacting the shafts, struts and bearings. And suddenly all was quiet, like in the days of the sailing ships, with this marvel of modern navigation sitting still on the sand, helpless. Hours later, a TowboatUS freed the boat which slowly limped into a yard.
“We were watching the chart plotter and the screen didn’t change fast enough,” was the explanation we heard. My mouth dropped but I didn’t say anything. Yet again, I was seeing the results of people driving by computer.
There are some fantastic computer games, for those so inclined, with icons of players foraging over fantastic terrain, accomplishing goals ranging from the bizarre to the ordinary. Players intently watch the screen and control the fate of their characters with mouse, joystick and hot buttons. They can be very challenging and immense fun. I’m told it’s the wave of the future. Whatever it is, it’s a game. Driving a boat is not.
We have two chart plotters on the “Chez Nous.” Our newest is a Standard Horizon CP300i (http://www.standardhorizon.com/ ) with an internal antenna and C-Map Max cartography (http://www.c-map.com/ ). We can easily transport this unit from the mother ship to the tender if needed, to find our way through questionable shoals. We love the technology. We think that it not only adds to the fun, it adds immeasurably to safety and to accurate navigation. We wouldn’t want to be out here without it. We recommend technology such as this. But we don’t just look at digital representations on electronic screens. We also use current paper Chartkits by Maptech. We also use the Waterway Guide and others. We also do that old fashion
ed thing called looking out ahead (and keeping watch on all points). If we have question from what the charts or guides say or from what the screen is showing, or from what we’re seeing, we slow down and study what’s ahead with the naked eye or with our Steiner Commander XP binoculars. We use all the tools, including eyes and common sense.
Shoals off an East Coast Inlet. They Move
We aren’t the only ones who do this. Thousands of skippers pass that shoal every year without running up on it. But a surprisingly large number do, year after year after year. And they do the same thing with many other shoals. Sometimes it’s an unavoidable accident. One of those things. It happens to us all. We all get the bad luck of the draw sometimes. It’s never fun, and we’d rather forget the day. (I’ve got a few days I’d very much like to forget.) But it isn’t just bad luck when we’re driving exclusively by electronics on a clear day, and not looking ahead and looking around. Prudent navigation dictates keeping a lookout and watching where you’re going. But there’s more to it than that.
On our trip south this fall we encountered severe fog in what is known as the “firing range” in that part of the ICW that runs through Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. On either side of the narrow channel signs warned to not land because of unexploded ordinance. It wasn’t a place you wanted to run aground, not that any are.
Where before had been clear daylight, the air was suddenly filled with the gray cottony swirling mist of mariners’ nightmares. We couldn’t see beyond the bow of the boat, and barely that. We looked to the chart plotter. It helped us immeasurably with regard to how far we were from a bridge ahead and the few aids to navigation that were in the area. But at times it also showed the icon for our boat up on the shore, well within the area of “danger, unexploded ordinance.” We knew we weren’t up in the marsh. From our depth finder and the simple fact that we were still floating we knew we were in the channel. But it was an eerie feeling, seeing the icon flashing there.
There was nothing wrong with our equipment. It was just that this was one of many areas where the “maps” aren’t precisely in line with where the GPS technology says that things are. Sometimes the information from the satellites isn’t exactly accurate for us. This technology was designed for military use. Yes, it’s now usually very spot-on for non military users, because of advanced technology, but no always. And then, there are charts that are based on information derived far before people even started dreaming about satellites and GPS. There are entire islands that are not exactly where the charts say they are.
A few years ago we watched a multi-million dollar go-fast yacht plow across reef, which lay waiting beneath around 2 feet of water. His propellers came through the adventure looking like wet noodles. This was at an island, several hundred miles southeast of Miami. He was on a run down to the Caribbean. We were told that he didn’t have a single—not one single paper chart aboard. He flew two employees out from the states with two new props which, I’m told, cost over $15,000 each. He hired divers to put them on and roared off to the Caribbean, I assume poring over his pixels.
All this isn’t just amusing. It should be angering to the rest of us. If these folks want to tear up their boats it’s more than just their business. It’s our business too. It raises our insurance premiums and hurts us in other ways. Sometimes it harms parts of the environment that we love so much to be a part of when we’re out on the water. That’s why I’m glad to see that some boat manufacturers are offering education to new boaters who buy their product. But I can’t help wondering. If you have to be told to look where you’re going, how much boating education is it going to take?
Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale