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The Value of Traditional Navigation

I greatly enjoy traditional navigation. With electronic navigation (chartplotters, especially), traditional tools have lost much of their allure to most of the boating public. This is a sad state of affairs for three reasons: Lack of appreciation of the boating experience, rigidity of thought that leads to trouble and navigational danger in trouble.
When plotting is a matter of identifying landmarks, from stars with a sextant to mountains with compass, one inherently studies the environment and learns from that experience. The result is a greater sense of progress, things that aren’t going well (such as a current pushing the boat offtrack) and general connectivity with nature and the way we’re interacting with her. This, in turn, leads to better watchkeeping and therefore preventative measures and less chance of hazard. There is a profound pleasure from navigating with pencil and paper charts. I was onboard a boat in danger and the radio operator repeatedly gave our position to the Coast Guard as being at a waypoint on the chartplotter, instead of our current position. If this person would have taken sights and plotted the position, that error would never have occurred.
I’ve sailed coasts with chartplotters confidently showing the beach 2.5 miles inland (Baja Mexico comes to mind.) and have sailed past many navigational dangers not shown on paper chart or on chartplotter. The big difference here is that because of my increased awareness of my environment from taking fixes and plotting, I am much more vigilant and effective on watch: I study my environment constantly, get a superior feel for it and have an idea of the kinds of most likely dangers to look for. I remember seeing an unmarked reef 12 miles offshore and having an argument about it. I grabbed the wheel and steered us safely around the reef; the hand on watch stared incredulously as we passed what certainly would have been our doom. He relied on the chartplotter and it told him there was no danger, so what he was seeing must have been something other than dangerous.
Chartplotters are great and I often use them. It’s fun to scroll around, check engine gauges and come up with ship information of passing vessels. It’s so easy to think everything represented is factual, especially when zooming up close. It’s usually impossible to tell if electronic chart lines are interpolated or based on actual soundings and that source of error can be far greater when zooming closely than the data supports. Electronic charts are based on scanned charts, though and so much of NOAA’s budget has been moved to scanning charts from updating them that many of the charts I bought last year aren’t updated from the same charts I bought fifteen years ago: While charts are fantastic guides, that’s all they are. The focus needs to be on direct observation: Look at the color of the water for an indication of depth when close to shore, measure leeway regularly when nearing a point, etc. Direct observation includes electronic tools like depth sounder and radar. Gps-based navigation assumes accurate charts and is inherently unreliable for close maneuvering: As we near rocks with great pointy teeth, looking out for them directly becomes more important… Frequently checking other navigational aids.
The best navigators I have known delight in creatively using their navigational aids and love telling stories of… A watch, depthsounder, compass and chart finding and maintaining position in deep fog. Someone without traditional navigational skills would have been literally lost in that circumstance. It’s a matter of connectivity with environment and mastery of navigational aids.
You are the lookout and you are on watch, so do both. It’s a gas!

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