Gaining offshore nav confidence

Planning a voyage? Signed on to navigate in an upcoming ocean race? Had a recent on-the-water scare? Feeling a bit rusty?

If the answer to any of the questions listed above is yes, some navigation confidence-building may be wise. Confidence is defined as “the belief in one’s own abilities.” If that belief is somehow compromised, the navigator must find ways to bring it back. But how to go about it? This article will explore some ideas for putting the rusty navigator back on track, both for general navigation work and potential offshore voyages.

First, make an inventory of your skills (a checklist follows). Be honest. Are you comfortable with chart-plotting basics or a bit out of practice? Can you fully evaluate data from electronic sources? If a race is in the plans, what is your comfort level with performance instrumentation? Heading offshore? When was the last time you reduced a celestial sight? Plotted a sun-line running fix?

Next, make an inventory of the equipment on board, evaluate the needs of the coming voyage or race, and plan to upgrade or replace equipment as necessary.

Finally, build a list of skills and equipment knowledge necessary for the voyage ahead. Compare this list with your own evaluation to point out missing or weak skills and, possibly, missing equipment. (It might be appropriate to include an evaluation of crucial crewmembers as well.) With this final list in hand we are ready to explore some ways to check the items off (we’ll ignore equipment needs for this article).

For many, the best way to build skills and develop confidence in themselves and their crew is via their own boats. During my years in the Coast Guard, navigation drills were an important part of the catalog of drills and training common on board the cutters. These included radar drills, compass drills, fog drills, and DR and plotting drills, among others. Similarly, good racing crews know that sail-handling drills and emergency drills are a part of race preparation. Voyaging sailors would do well to emulate these formats. Here are a couple of ideas for drills in your home waters where you and your crew are most comfortable. The skills and teamwork developed in these coastal exercises will translate to blue-water confidence.

Fog/radar drill: Plan an interesting route out of the harbor, or around the bay, with a variety of course changes. Set up the boat as though a thick fog has descended: lookouts, helm, navigator, additional people on hand to man sail controls or act as communications links (between nav station and helm, for example). Brief everyone beforehand as to their roles and what the objectives are for the drill. Alert the crew to any lights and/or sound signals that would likely be encountered underway. The idea is for the crew to assume zero visibility and act accordingly, informing the helm and navigator of any sights and sounds. The navigator must keep a solid navigation plot, using radar and DR, and inform the helm of any impending course changes, while providing a running commentary to all on board. This sort of drill is an excellent way to sharpen the skills of every crewmember. Rotating positions makes it an even more valuable exercise.

Plotting drill: Set up a route, using multiple course changes, and as many forms of position finding as are on board. Plot the boat’s position at least every six minutes (to learn to take advantage of the six-minute rule), using a couple of methods each time. Comparing the GPS position to one developed by visual bearings or DR can be a terrific confidence builder. Learn to use other crewmembers to gain information, having them read the depth sounder, grab a quick visual bearing over the steering compass, or sight natural ranges as they occur. Any effects of local tides and currents can train the navigator to be aware of these influences, a valuable awareness to develop if the pending voyage involves crossing a major ocean current.

Offshore: For the new offshore sailor or navigator one of the first worries (aside from preparing the boat) is the preparation of the body and mind: what will be the reaction to ocean conditions, to sailing at night, to lack of sleep; how will coastal navigation skills translate to blue water? Since there is no way to answer these questions without actually heading offshore, a “training voyage” can be considered.

An overnight cruise in home waters is a common way to see how crew and boat react to heading offshore. The navigator also gets ample opportunities to practice a variety of position-finding methods and chart skills while in familiar waters.

Signing on as crew for a delivery is, for many sailors, a natural first step in gaining offshore experience. With the right situation, sailors can gain confidence in new sailing skills, practice offshore navigation, or decide that the whole offshore thing isn’t for them! Other traditional ways to develop a sailing resume include signing on for a week-long training cruise, such as the one run by this magazine for many years. Also, some sailing schools regularly run offshore programs of varied length, an excellent way to experience offshore sailing in a small sailboat.

But what of the navigator? How is he or she supposed to hone skills and develop confidence? If the navigator needs to learn celestial navigation, he or she should first develop an understanding of the process while on land, either in a classroom or at the kitchen table. This makes the transition to at-sea navigation much less stressful, as well as more accurate. This magazine holds regular celestial classes, as do local Power Squadrons, yacht clubs, and other institutions. Take advantage of the opportunity and sign up; celestial is a fascinating science, and a different way to appreciate the natural world. Plus, it really does work, a fact often doubted by newcomers.

For many navigators, races like the Marion-Bermuda Race, with its emphasis on celestial navigation, provide a challenging opportunity to hone celestial skills. Although it is usually expected by the skipper that their navigator has the essential skills ahead of time, many a Marion-Bermuda race navigator has climbed aboard with a mix of classroom and practical skills and done very well. And, talk about developing confidence, a successful celestial landfall at the end of the race (or any passage for that matter) is one of the most satisfying experiences for a navigator.But, before any passage or race where celestial is likely to be needed, even the most seasoned navigator is wise to practice a few sights and sight reductions. Head to the beach, shoot the sun in the backyard (using an artificial horizon or a bubble attachment), and work at getting land-based sight accuracy down to a couple of miles (comparing results to a known position or GPS is a great help). It is natural to wonder about one’s abilities and doubt one’s confidence, especially if they impact the safety of a vessel and its passengers. But, through regular practice, drills and study, a conscientious navigator can develop the competence and confidence to sign on for a voyage just about anywhere.

By Ocean Navigator