Electronics blunt navigation skills

I think one of the biggest problems people have with navigation these days is inherent in what we all use today, namely electronics. We are taught and learn to not trust intuition and instead follow the instructions. In other words, it makes absolutely no sense to hit “Start” when you want to shut down Windows, but that is what we have learned to do.

My whole being rebels every time I have to hit Start to shut down. Those of us who learned to sail without much in the way of electronics had to develop more of a seat-of-the-pants feel for the boat. Instead of learning how to run equipment we learned how to read the weather, judge currents, sense shoals, notice wind shifts. I simply can’t imagine being 40 degrees off course (like Gypsy Moth in the Tuamotus) for hours without someone sensing that the boat was taking the waves or the wind at the wrong angle–I frequently find myself waking up when this happens and I am off watch. My first cruising boat had nothing more advanced than an unlit compass. I threw a lead line to determine depth. I’m really glad I did, because I still have some feel for when a slight change in the waves, swells, or surface currents might indicate a shallow or underwater obstruction.

I developed that sense by ramming into things, going aground, missing the channel, etc. But, I did it in a small, inexpensive boat that could be pushed off when it happened. A lot of today’s cruisers start out with big boats loaded with all the gear, and they never get the chance to get accustomed to the natural clues that are out there.

I think if you are lucky enough to be able to start out with a modern, well-equipped boat, a great idea would be to do a lot of coastal cruising sans all electronics. Maybe even disconnect everything for a year or two. Without the electronics you’ll take a lot more care with your navigation. You’ll learn a lot and be a lot safer in the long run.

Phalarope on 09/21/2006 16:30

I do find that the electronics are highly attention-absorbing and that this heightens the sense of panic when something goes wrong. I can definitely get myself into trouble by getting distracted by them. I like the idea of turning the instruments off for practice and to better learn the feel of the boat. Of course, it also makes sense to do the opposite, to turn them on when you don’t need them (e.g. radar on a clear day) so that you get to compare what the electronics are saying with reality.

Bill Morris/Saltaire on 09/21/2006 18:02

John has shared some important wisdom here. I couldn’t imagine sailing anywhere without my depth sounder and permanent-mount GPS, but that’s not how I started. For my first few years of sailing, I used a paper chart, dividers, parallel rules and a hand-held compass, learning coastal navigation the old-fashioned way. Sometimes cruising guides give waypoints that are several miles off. The pilot book I was using along Spain’s Costa del Sol had waypoint errors of up to four miles, and for some reason, while in the western Med, the GPS couldn’t get a reading, sometimes for two or three hours–very frightening indeed. I found myself taking bearings with my old hand-held compass again. Before my next major voyage, I definitely need to become proficient with the sextant. Electronics are very helpful, but they’ll never take the place of our eyes, ears, nose and common sense.

By Ocean Navigator