Video Game Navigation

By Tom Neale, 2/22/2007


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Aground in Nassau
What’s wrong with this picture? It was taken a few days ago in Nassau Harbor in the Bahamas. The boat had assumedly made its way at least across the Atlantic Ocean because it flew a British flag. Or, if it had come from the states, it would have probably crossed the Gulf Stream, Great Bahamas Banks, the Tongue of the Ocean and a lot of other water to get here. But “here” was a brown bar. A brown bar in the Bahamas is hard--as in rock. It shows up very distinctly through the clear water, especially if that water is shallow. You can see it clearly in this picture.

This particular brown bar has been in Nassau Harbor probably for far longer than anyone can remember. Even if you couldn’t see it, it’s in a well known spot. It runs up and down the harbor, easterly of the east bridge and immediately easterly of the Potters Cay docks. These docks are where the island freighters come in to load and off-load cargo. There are always some freighters sitting at the docks, including that portion of the docks immediately westerly of the bar. It’s obvious that they need a lot of water to get there, thus it’s obvious where the deep water lies. This brown bar runs between the main channel of the harbor and several marinas on the “mainland” of New Providence (the large island where the city is located). To get to those marinas, a boat has to clear this brown bar. It has to go around the end of the bar or through a passage. These marinas have been in that location, behind the bar, for many many years. Boats, large and small, dock every day at these marinas. These include mega yachts of relatively deep draft. The brown bar and the passages around or across it are well marked on the charts and are discussed in most guide books on the area.

Electronic Gadgets

1. Shop carefully for chart plotters and similar products. Don’t just go for the “deal of the day”. It may be a deal because there are flaws or because it’s outdated.

2. Consider not only the hardware but the cartography. How good is the chart coverage and what other info is given and how easy is it to quickly access it.

There is a red light on a pole at the end of the bar. Also on the pole is a “DANGER” sign. Westerly of the light and pole is the very deep water where the island freighters pass to tie up. This can be confusing if you’re thinking “red right return” because if you’re coming from the harbor heading in for a marina dock or fuel, you put that light to your left. But the light has been that color for a long time, it’s not a red right return situation, the bar is very clear in good light, and it shouldn’t take much guessing to figure out where the deep water is with those freighters right there. So why is it that around once a week a boat ends up in a position like this? We were told that the previous week a large Azimut found itself similarly situated.

A position like this can be really bad, not just because the bottom is hard unforgiving sharp rock, but also because often swell and wind wave surge through the harbor which is open on each end. If that isn’t enough, wakes can make up the difference.

While the harbor is supposed to be a slow zone without wakes, Bahamian boat operators seem to have a hard time remembering this. Every once in a while you see a police boat pulling someone, but usually it’s “Go as fast as you like, Mon,” among the populace as well as visiting boats. As I’m writing this, I’m sitting at a marina on a friend’s very nice 58 foot trawler. (If I were on my boat I’d be out at anchor because I can’t afford marinas, so this is a special experience.) The wakes are rolling this boat (and others) so bad that the gazillion dollar satellite TV domes that are supposed to keep the picture coming through even in the ocean is loosing the picture. Now that’s a lot of wakes. This means that waves constantly roll onto the bar, grinding holes in the hulls of boats that are stuck there. It also bends rudders, pushes rudder stocks through bottoms, pushes propeller struts through bottoms and does lots of other really nice things.

The boat in this picture was unfortunate enough to find itself in this spot during the period of the full moon. There had actually been a full lunar eclipse the night before. That means extra high high tides and extra low low tides. If you’re lucky enough to go aground on a low tide rising, you’ll probably be able to float free pretty soon. (That’s the time I always try to go aground. I figure since the odds are that I’m probably going to do it anyway, I might as well make it easy on myself.) Apparently this boat had the bad luck of doing the act on a falling tide.

Again, so why was it here?

First, I should make it very clear that I don’t know why this boat was up on the bar. I don’t mean to suggest or imply in the least that there was any poor seamanship or carelessness here. I just don’t know. This could have happened even though the operator was doing every thing right and doing it all well. For example, there could have been a sudden mechanical breakdown with resultant loss of control at exactly the wrong moment, or a lot of other things. “Stuff” happens and it happens to us all. (When it happens to me I don’t call it “stuff.” I use a far more descriptive word.) But, for various reasons, boats go on this bar all the time. And most of the time it shouldn’t have happened and it involves some sort of poor seamanship.

And this isn’t the only place it happens. We see it all up and down the east coast as well as in the Bahamas. Often in the Bahamas the boats are badly damaged or lost. It’s very chilling to dive on one of these boats after it’s been holed and washed off the reef. Spilling from the gashes in its underbody are things like sheets, books, food stores, cooking utensils, computers, machinery—all the daily life stuff of cruising that we take for granted. Sometimes the gutted boats leave a trail of former daily life across the ocean bottom. It’s incredibly depressing to see it.

Which is perhaps why we don’t see much coverage of this in the glamour magazines. People don’t like to read about this and they think that commentary like this is “preachy.” But it happens.

Mailboats at Potters Cay in Nassau

I think that one of the reasons that it happens is that too many skippers are accustomed to just pushing a button or two and having a GPS interfaced autopilot drive their boat. These gadgets are great. I wouldn’t be without them. But using them should be just a part of prudent seamanship—not in lieu of good seamanship. It’s so easy to use them, especially in home waters and easy waters, that far too many people are just taking off on the water without a clue as to what they need to know and how they need to do it. It’s like seamanship has become a video game. And this leads to a false sense of security which leads to running boats without the exercise of good seamanship—or even the knowledge of what it is.

But if someone can’t navigate a boat without chart plotters—if someone can’t navigate a boat the old fashioned way, by studying charts, reading water and weather, knowing the signs, planning landfalls and entrances in advance, keeping constant lookout—you know, all that good stuff, then that someone shouldn’t be out here. It just doesn’t work to leave it up to robots. And that someone especially shouldn’t be in places like the Bahamas where an average bad day in the states can be multiplied exponentially. Again, I make no suggestion that this is what happened with this unfortunate cruiser; I just include the picture to illustrate the point, because I think it can’t be illustrated enough. And I don’t mean to sound preachy and I don’t want to be negative.

Paradise can become really bad really quickly, whether we’re in the islands or close to home. Here’s to all of us having a good time--safely.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale