September 2, 2014

Don't overdo electronic thingies

A MESSAGE FROM A READER who signs off as “57 Degrees North” says:

“It fascinates me how many people these days are simply terrified of leaving the harbor without GPS, chart plotter, radar, and satellite weather download thingy for their laptops.

“Back in my salad days we used to work offshore in the Gulf of Alaska all the time. This was pre-GPS of course, and while there was Loran-C it was notoriously wonky, and generally no better than dead-reckoning anyway, so many folks didn't bother.
“To get home, you simply steamed a reciprocal heading, which was usually in the ball park. After all, missing the coastline of Alaska would be no mean feat of navigation. Coastal charts and a smattering of local knowledge usually did for the rest.
“One of those odd geographic features is that on clear days the tallest mountains always pop over the horizon first, which gives you a nice visual fix on position. Obviously not as accurate as that electronic thingummy, but plenty good enough for us Neanderthals.”

Yes, it’s an interesting thing, how people have become so reliant on their electronic aids. I can remember when a couple of us went to sea on a 24-foot sloop, a Harrison-Butler Thuella design, with nothing more than a compass, a chart, a pair of dividers and a parallel rule. Oh, and a number 2 pencil, of course.

We didn’t even have en engine. Well, actually, we did, but it was only there for ballast because the hole for the propeller shaft hadn’t yet been drilled.

We set out from the Indian Ocean port of Durban, where my friend Ray Cruickshank had built the boat, bound for exotic Lourenco Marques 300 miles to the north. I was a teenager then, and I was invited on the trip because I knew how to sail, and Ray didn’t. Neither of us could navigate, of course, so we didn’t have a sextant or any form of electronics, not even a radio of any kind.  We weren’t bothered about this. It was the norm, or close to it, for those times, as 57 Degree North has pointed out. All we had to do was keep Africa on the left side and we’d surely get there.

We didn’t get there, as it happened. The Mozambique Currrent, flowing south at up to 4 knots, kept sweeping us back so that every time we closed with the land we had to admit we were hopelessly lost. After almost a week of frustration, we turned tail and sped back to Durban with the current. We didn’t need a sextant or any electronic aid to find Durban, with its miles of bright lights and high-rise beachfront hotels.

I’m not suggesting anyone should try to emulate Marvin Creamer and the crew of his 36-foot boat Globe Star, who sailed around the world with no navigational instruments whatsoever, not even a compass or a watch. On the other hand, it’s reassuring to know that common sense and a normal aptitude for direction finding will supply most sailors with most of the knowledge they need for most of the trips they make.

Today’s Thought
Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you, smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, "Come and find out.”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness 
An old-fashioned sloop pulled in to the dock, and a beautiful woman stepped off with a parrot on her shoulder.
“Where did you get that?” asked one of the dock hands.
“Met her online,” said the parrot.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Number of times I've been nearly run down by someone who was navigating by eye: Perhaps 2. (But one of those was three sheets to the wind and ran over a channel marker at 25 knots a minute later.)

Number of times I've been nearly run down by someone who was fiddling with their nav computer instead of looking outside: At least 12.

An integrated chartplotter-radar-AIS-fishfinder-GPS-depthsounder-coffeemaker hybrid, while potentially useful, is no substitute for looking out the window now and then.