Do we really need to know this stuff?

Dec 11, 2012 by Guest Writer

Let’s be honest here: How many of you would be comfortable taking a vessel of any size from Ft. Lauderdale to New York via, say, Charleston, then up the Chesapeake and down the Delaware?

Or maybe a night run across to West End on Grand Bahama and then down to Nassau, all without the benefit of electronic navigational aids on board?

Imagine all you can have is a magnetic compass suitable for taking bearings and some paper charts. And that’s it.

Probably not a lot of hands going up, I suspect.

It wasn’t so long ago, maybe 30 years or less, that a magnetic compass and chart was all that many coastal navigators were equipped with to get their vessels safely around the coast. Having a gyro compass on board was a real luxury, and then came radar, although this was not always well received by some old timers.

In the late 1950s, I sailed with a captain who, even though we had a radar on the bridge, never looked at it once during a circumnavigation of Africa. He said that he had been through two world wars without one and he couldn’t see the need for them now. And a fine navigator he was, too.

With the advent of electronic navigational aids came the misuse and mistrust of them. In the early days of radar there were a number of well known radar-assisted collisions. One of the better known incidents in the North Atlantic was in 1956 between the 29,100-ton Italian passenger ship Andrea Doria and the 12,644 ton Swedish passenger ship Stockholm that resulted in the sinking of the Andrea Doria.

In the Pacific, there was an increase in groundings when navigators started to rely implicitly upon positions obtained from Satnavs. The positions obtained from them were accurate enough, but the paper charts being used were not created using the same datum. With both radar and Satnavs, fatal errors in their use were mostly caused through lack of training and understanding, and also forgetting to use basic navigation skills.

And it’s still happening, of course, as with the spectacular examples such as the grounding of the container ship Rena (at 17 knots) in New Zealand, and the Italian passenger ship Costa Concordia on the Italian coast.

But today, electronic navigation systems, radars, AIS, and a host of other electronic navigational aids have the ability to make the human navigator an almost unnecessary appendage in the cockpit or on a bridge. At times, as with the above examples, it may be better if humans were not involved with the ship’s navigation at all.

But seriously, why should we still be bothered with magnetic compasses, working out their errors, taking bearings and plotting them on a paper chart?

It’s a question that I am often asked by the younger students I teach, and fair enough, too, as most of them have been on superyachts that have been navigated purely by electronic systems and have safely cruised the world with hardly a need to look out the wheelhouse window.

Many of these yachts have more than one navigational system, with even deckhands having their own handheld systems, complete with GPS, worldwide charts and tides, star almanacs, plus the ability to talk to Mum from mid-Pacific. But they don’t make good coffee … yet.

So having all that electronic navigational gear on board, why is it still necessary that we teach the modern navigator how to navigate using a magnetic compass?

Of course, there is more involved than just knowing how to use a magnetic compass and take bearings. Without electronic navigational aids you have to be more aware of your surroundings, not only on board your vessel but of the environment that your vessel is operating in. The coastline, with its hills, mountains, valleys, headlands and lights, become important potential navigational aids, not forgetting the depth and contours of the sea bed, too. This involves looking out of the wheelhouse windows, having and actively using the skills to truly navigate.

But, students say, we have all these back-up systems so we don’t really need to know this “other stuff”.

I can truthfully say that when I relieve as skipper on a superyacht, the more electronics I see on board, the more I’m sure there will be problems, as rarely do they operate fault-free. A case in point was when I was skippering a 50m motor yacht for the 1,100-mile run down to Mauritius from the Seychelles, and all three GPS systems on the bridge failed, with no back-ups.

“That’s funny,” the mate said. “That’s happened before.”

But three days later, using traditional navigational methods, we saw the peaks of Mauritius rise on the horizon.

It is also always possible the governments that control the navigation satellites may have a good reason to flick the switch and turn them off. That’s a scary thought for many modern navigators.

There are a number of good reasons, therefore, that the basics of hands-on navigation practices should continue to be taught and practiced, not the least of which is that being a professional navigator is knowing what to do when the lights go out.


Capt. Michael Pignéguy is a relief captain on charter boats and superyachts around the world. He is an RYA instructor and examiner in Auckland, NZ, and the author of three boating books (