One would think it was a simple question. Silly, even, to ask a group of professional mariners.
How do you navigate?
With all the modern electronic methods and the fading art of reading the skies with a sextant, we figured there might be some interesting discussion about how mariners navigate today. There was, from the failures of GPS to the failures of paper charts to the failures of mariners.
These captains have all been trained and have practiced this art of their job. But, like most other things in yachting, few captains navigate the same way.
“Hopefully not by feel,” one captain quipped.
“It depends on where you’re going and what you’re used to,” said another captain, perhaps encapsulating the entire discussion from the outset.
“I use radar range and visual bearing,” another said.
“I use e-charts, the new Odyssey,” said a fourth. “But it’s more a reference than anything. I do keep paper charts out of habit.”
As always, individual comments are not attributed to any one person in particular so as to encourage frank and open discussion. The attending captains are identified in a photograph.
All the captains said they keep paper charts onboard; regulations still require them for all but the most technologically up-to-date commercial yachts with double redundant electronic systems. And they all use their paper charts, though some use them as back up, some as primary reference.
“If you don’t have them, your chart system goes down,” one captain noted.
Everyone, however, also uses some sort of GPS-based system.
“I monitor the electronic charts because it’s easier, but I back up with paper charts to be sure,” one captain said.
“Even with full ECDIS on a 60m charter yacht, I always have my paper charts out in case I need to divert,” another said.
Interestingly, paper charts were not the revered gold standard that we thought they might be.
“I’ve had charts do some weird things, back in the day,” one captain said.
The captains then shared stories about mismarked charts, charts with repeated quadrants, charts not lined on center, rocks that appeared where water was supposed to be, channel changes that weren’t recorded.
And they did the same for electronic charts.
“[One brand] will put you in the woods,” a captain said.
“A captain I once had was a bluewater sailor,” another captain said. “A mile out, he’d turn everything off. He was much more confident in his own skills.”
These captains noted that the scenario and environment will dictate how they navigate.
“It all depends what you’re up to,” one captain said. “With ISM, you’ve got to do it by the book.”
“And with smaller boats, it’s more precautionary than regulatory,” another said.
“There are different challenges inshore,” noted a third. “There’s a lot of visual plotting and you’re battling bridges, tides, fighting daylight. Looking at all those challenges, navigating is totally different than offshore.”
Several captains who maneuver the mouth of the New River regularly said they often see boats aground in the triangle that gets shallow. And not all of them are weekend boaters, but licensed captains.
“Sometimes they sit on it until the next high tide lifts them off,” a captain said.
In the Bahamas, these captains use Explorer charts, which are private. Nobeltec charts work, too.
“If you’re getting into territorial waters, you’d better turn off the Transas,” one captain noted.
“Transas is more for big ships, big water, not shallow water or coastal,” another said. “For territorial waters, better to use Nobeltec.”
Not all electronic chart options onboard are created equal. One captain who arrived onboard for a relief position said, “The app on my phone was a whole lot more accurate and had a whole lot more information than anything they had on the boat.”
Another captain who has a lesser-known version of electronic charts onboard said “What I have onboard I’d take a hammer to right now.”
Still, it’s better to have more options.
“I like to have all the equipment there and available, but I don’t always use it all,” another captain said.
“I’m not doing dead reckoning,” said a third. “I tend to read the cruisers’ blogs to find out who ran aground where.”
“There are two types of captains: those who have run aground, and those who are about to,” a captain said.
“You can have all the electronic charts out there, but they don’t mean a damn in 10-foot seas and the power goes out,” another said.
So how do you navigate? Let’s say you have a trip coming up. What do you do?
“Before a trip, I download the latest NOAA charts,” one captain said.
“I use a combination of paper and electronic, and radar when I’m doing coastal,” another said.
“I plot the whole thing, with little diversions,” said a third.
“On coastal voyages, I use radar, parallel indexing on a radar, and pilotage,” said another.
“I always keep my same track lines,” said a captain who runs a regular route for the owner. “I generally use the same roads. And it’s a good habit to teach younger crew. It’s good to know where you’ve been.”
“You’re not required to have anything electronic; you’re just required not to run into stuff,” another captain said.
“But you better have those basic skills to fall back on when the plug gets pulled,” said a third.
“Young guys today are relying solely on electronics,” one captain said as he told a story about repositioning the yacht from Palma to Monaco when an antenna failed, making both of the yacht’s GPSs useless. “They wanted to know ‘How are we going to get there?’ Well, we’re going to get out the paper charts and reckon our whole way.”
When I asked if anyone else relied on GPS and electronic charts, they all agreed they did, young and older.
“I get all our charts out and put them in order, then I double check the GPS with the paper charts every hour,” one captain said. “On an Atlantic crossing, it’s every four hours.”
“And if something doesn’t match up, someone better be calling someone because you’re on the wrong side of the runway,” another captain said.
“On a crossing, one deckhand on watch had the radar zoomed right in to 1/10th of a mile, right on the track line,” the first captain said. “How can you tell what’s happening, where you are? I can’t stand that.”
These captains joked about times their paper charts failed them, like the first time coming back into Ft. Lauderdale after the smoke stacks in the port had been torn down, or the time an island wasn’t where it was supposed to be and instead there were rocks.
“Paper charts are only supposed to be used as a guideline,” a captain said.
“More tools, more redundancy equals more confidence,” said another.
The captains noted that the art of navigation goes beyond charts. One spoke with respect about the voyages of explorers of hundreds of years ago, especially British Capt. James Cook. Without charts, he circumnavigated New Zealand, hand-drawing the first European charts of the area. Even now, centuries later, they have proven to be spot on.
“He didn’t have to worry about mutiny because no one else could navigate,” one captain said.
“Those guys were amazing navigators,” said another.
When it comes to teaching the next generation of captains, this group said it wasn’t a challenge. Even though “young guys today” tend to rely on their electronic equipment, they also are keen to do it the old-fashioned way.
“Watchkeepers are generally very interested in learning, so teaching them is not a problem,” one captain said. “At the end of a long trip, they are reasonably competent.”
“This is pro forma stuff for the yachtmaster course,” another said.
“In pilotage water is where it gets tricky,” a captain said. “It’s hard to make time to teach this.”
“There are people I’ll hire to do a certain job, and they’re on their own to learn more than that,” another captain said. “And then there are some I’ll hire to train. With some, you can tell they just won’t get it.”
None of these captains navigate using the stars anymore. That’s not to say they can’t, nor that they don’t enjoy it.
“I’ll take a sextant with me on a long crossing,” a captain said. “It’s lonely and I have three weeks of peace and quiet to practice. Because sometimes, you know, you do a course and forget it unless you practice.”
One captain told the story (a joke?) of a young mariner in an oral exam for his captain’s license. The examiner asked, Do you have a sextant? and the mariner replied that he did. When the examiner asked him why, the young mariner said, “Why, to check the accuracy of the GPS, of course.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at email@example.com. Captains who make their living running someone else’s yacht are welcome to join in the conversation. E-mail us for an invitation to our monthly From the Bridge luncheon.