Recently, while power voyaging on the Maine coast, with my wife at the helm of our 40-year-old Grand Banks 32 single-screw trawler, I was out in the cockpit doing a couple of late-morning sun sights. It was such a pleasure to bring that heavily-shaded orb of the sun down to the horizon with my sextant as the boat gently rolled and pitched under me.
Coming up from astern of us was a similarly-sized but more modern powerboat. This boat slowly came abeam of us and its occupants waved and shouted across, asking what I was doing. I held up the sextant and explained as briefly as possible.
“That’s crazy,” they shouted in a friendly way, with big smiles, as their boat pulled slowly ahead. Considering that we were less than a mile offshore, and we all knew our exact location, perhaps they were right. But for me it was doing what I like best.
Since we made the switch from sail to power, I have been delighted to find that we actually have the best of all nautical worlds.
True, we are not likely to be heading offshore for Bermuda or the far Caribbean, but can still travel well offshore at any time, and I can still pursue the one aspect of offshore sailing that I most enjoy: navigation.
I actually learned long ago that powerboats are ideal platforms for navigation. They are relatively stable with good all-around visibility and they can be directed in most any direction, given cooperative wind and sea conditions. Powerboats can log consistent heading and speed, and, best of all, they can stop at any time. When keeping a plot going on a powered vessel, it is easy to make turns and course adjustments exactly on the hour or half-hour. Perhaps best of all, if caught without some kind of hand bearing compass, it is easy to simply point the boat at any convenient visual target and read the bearing directly off the steering compass — try doing that with a sailing vessel under press of canvas.
Powered cruisers also make ideal platforms for the use of electronic position-finders, chartplotters and radar. Given the same sea conditions, I would think that your powerboat is going to be steering a straighter course and turning in a more consistent speed. That makes for better radar information and a more stable position picture on the chartplotter not to mention a more accurate dead reckoning (DR) track.
The best powerboats for navigators are those that have some convenient space on which to spread out a chart, or sight reduction materials or plotting sheets. Without a proper navigation space, all the advantages of the more stable and roomy platform are diminished.
Many power cruisers do not include a purpose-built navigation desk within the cabin decor, but it’s usually easy to employ abundant counter space for a place to spread out a chart and do your plotting. A boat without sufficient counter space, or some kind of desk not too far from the helm, is likely to present a frustrating interior for the navigationally-inclined captain.
A noticeable trend with new boats, as well as those retrofitted with new electronics, is installation of television-sized chartplotters directly in front of the helm position; this is true for both sail and powered yachts. Often the chartplotters are interfaced with radar. It is true that the modern chartplotters are so much fun to use and are almost impossible to resist.
My experience operating power vessels is that the most satisfying situation is one where a chartplotter might be in use, but where someone is simultaneously keeping track of things on a paper chart, keeping up a casual DR plot, plotting the occasional bearing and anticipating upcoming navigational events, plus making regular use of the radar.
Autopilot nav benefits
The autopilot has got to be one of God’s great gifts to navigators. It’s true that there are many wonderful benefits to the work of an autopilot, but I like the navigational angle best. With a powered vessel cruising on autopilot, and the navigation station typically fairly close to the lower helm position, the enthusiast can keep a good lookout while carefully keeping up his DR track, plotting visual bearings or, say, radar ranges, or maybe even working out his latest celestial sights. The autopilot also allows him to conduct regular and thorough boat checks and to keep up the coffee supply as needed.
This gets even better at night. Some of my favorite navigational experiences, under both sail and power, have occurred when motoring at night in calm weather, ideally with someone else steering or the reliable autopilot playing the same role. On numerous family cruises aboard powerboats I have assured my wife that she could stay snug in her berth while I got the boat underway by myself from some reasonably open anchorage at two or three in the morning, time enough to sneak in two or three hours of enjoyable night navigation before sunrise. It would be hard to accomplish that kind of solo night work without an autopilot.
Except on very large yachts, it is awkward to really go at the navigation while conning a power vessel from the flying bridge. This is because your average powerboat does not have a chart space on the flybridge. Up there, while the view is great and practically every experience is enhanced by the greater height above sea level, most navigation that takes place involves following one’s path with a printed chart in hand, or doing the same with a chartplotter.
Aboard our boat, however, when underway for a trip more adventuresome than an evening cocktail cruise, there usually is some kind of navigator working below and passing up compass courses or other instructions to those enjoying the view from the flybridge. On our boat that person working the navigation is usually me.
Gregory Walsh, owner of Jezebel, a Grand Banks 32 trawler, is the former publisher and editor of Ocean Navigator. Walsh still enjoys practicing and teaching “hands on” traditional navigation.