That’s a pity, because the nautical mile is a pleasingly natural measurement, unlike the contrived kilometer and its affected minor offspring, the centis and the millis. The mariner’s mile is simply one-sixtieth of one degree of latitude.
Now, man’s ability to translate degrees of latitude into humble feet and inches that we can all understand has always varied with man’s ability to measure accurately the surface of the earth. But one degree of latitude has always equaled 60 nautical miles.
For many years, certainly as far back as I can remember, one nautical mile was held to be 6,080 feet. But we now know, thanks to brainier scientists and improved satellite equipment, that it’s actually 6,076.1 feet or 2,025.4 yards.
For all practical purposes, the harried navigator on a heaving yacht in bad visibility can take the nautical mile to be 2,000 yards. After all, the extra 25 yards is merely the length of one large yacht, and if your navigation is that good, your skipper will have nothing to complain about.
The land mile, used on the Great Lakes, inland rivers, and the Intracoastal Waterway, is still 1,760 yards, as always.
Another nice thing about the nautical mile is that one-tenth of one is a cable — say 200 yards, or two football fields. Since your GPS gives readouts in tenths, you have a ready visual reference for nautical distances in terms of familiar football fields. That’s something the metric system can’t hope to emulate. Who among us can visualize one tenth of a kilometer? Or ever want to?
Today’s ThoughtNew times demand new measures and new men;
The world advances, and in time outgrows
The laws that in our fathers’ day were best;
And, doubtless, after us, some purer scheme
Will be shaped out by wiser men than we.
— J. R. Lowell, A Glance Behind the Curtain.
Tailpiece“Nurse, get the patient’s name so we can inform his parents.”
“What for, doctor? His parents already know his name.”
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