Electronics, GPS and VHF, Part 1: Traditional Navigation

Traditional navigation aboard the Spirit of South Carolina off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina
Take a look at any sailing forum and you'll likely find more than one person who thinks that traditional navigational skills and traditional, printed-paper, nautical charts are obsolete, relics of the days of yore, moribund holdovers destined for the history books and trash bins in the new and improved world of GPS. There is a sense by some, or I should say many, that, with an array of redundant electronic gadgetry at their disposal, they should have no fear of not knowing exactly where they are, and where they are going. Leaving aside the fact that electronic devices, even when plentiful and redundant, can and do fail catastrophically for any number of reasons, there is a danger that comes from the feeling of certainty that GPS engenders. It is this feeling of certainty, perhaps more than anything else, that makes complete reliance on GPS foolhardy. This feeling of certainty has, on more than one occasion, led to disastrous results, as sailors, with relaxed vigilance, have plowed directly into rocks, shallow water, aids to navigation, and also other vessels. This is not to say, however, that GPS does not have its place on a cruising sailboat in today's world. Under certain conditions, where visibility is poor, the GPS is an invaluable tool. Likewise, when at anchor, a GPS can sound the alarm, when the hook is not holding well and the boat is beginning to drift toward a lee shore. Yes, the GPS does have its benefits, but it should never, in my experience, be a substitute for a keen-witted situational awareness that is founded upon active use of paper charts, navigational instruments, log books, and, of course, a good compass. In this first part of a multi-part article on the installation of a GPS and VHF in Oystercatcher, my Ericson 25, I stray briefly into the autobiographical, but only for the purpose of emphasizing how important it is, from my perspective, that a cruising sailboat, even a pocket cruiser such as this one, be fitted not only with modern day electronics, but also with those things that will support the sailor's traditional navigational skills.
My experience with the compass began at an early age. I must have been about 11 years old, when I got my first one, an inexpensive, plastic, Silva brand compass. I was a Boy Scout, and this was a piece of equipment that we were expected to carry with us on all campouts. Decades later I would still carry this compass with me, whenever I ventured away from the comforts of civilization.
I earned the Orienteering merit badge early in my Scouting days and considered it one of the most useful courses of study that I encountered.
As scouts, we regularly consulted USGS (US Geologic Survey) topographical maps when outdoors.  I became accustomed to interpreting contour lines and terrain features, and I also became adept at plotting distances using scales.
All of this experience later served me well when I, as a young man, was in the armed forces. I passed through a difficult period of training in the art of land navigation. Why did the military group with which I was associated consider this art of land navigation so important, despite the fact that GPS was available? Because electronic devices fail, and when they do, there is no substitute for extensive working knowledge in the traditional skills. During this time, the lensatic compass, such as you see pictured below, was my friend, night and day. This compass, together with a map, protractor, an accurate pace count, and a lot of practice at making proper conversions (grid north to compass north, and vice versa), was the key to knowing where I was and where I was going.
The maps we used, published by the Defense Mapping Agency, unlike most maps in the United States, were based on the metric system. Every small square on the map represented a square kilometer. Distances were thus measured not in miles, but in kilometers, or "klicks," the slang term that everyone used. To keep track of your klicks, you had to know well your own 100 meter pace count, and you had to remember how many increments of 100 meters you had traveled.
Adjoining DMA maps taped together, laminated, and folded, ready for use in the field
It could all get very confusing without wearing what were known as "Ranger beads." The lower half of the string contained 9 black beads. Each represented 100 meters. Every 100 meters, you would pull down one of the beads. Thus, by the time you had pulled down the ninth bead, you would have travelled 900 meters. 100 meters later, you would have travelled 1000 meters, or one klick. At this point, you would pull down one of the beads at the top (representing one klick), and then you'd reset the 9 beads at the bottom for the next round of nine, 100 meter increments.
Years later, after I had gotten married and had children, I decided to expose my family to the great outdoors. We journeyed much farther than I had ever journeyed as a scout. Nevertheless, some of those same basic navigational skills from my early years assisted me as we travelled countless roads across America. As a scout and as a soldier, I had carried everything I needed on my back. As a family man, I carried everything I needed for my family in our Toyota Sequoia SUV. It was, in a sense, our cruising sailboat, one that carried food and other supplies for trips of a month or more in length.
We made six different trips from our home in Charleston, South Carolina on the Atlantic coast to destinations as far as California on the Pacific Coast. Often we used the Interstate highway system.
Frequently, however, we travelled two-lane roads, often for great distances, simply because we wanted to experience that part of America that goes unseen by those who travel speedily along the Interstate.

View from a two-lane road in Nebraska
So did we carry a GPS on those many journeys across the United States? Yes. Did we ever use it? Rarely. In fact, only twice, both times to find local restaurants that we knew only by name, and both of those times the GPS led us astray, the details of which I will not here convey. What did I rely upon instead? A Rand McNally road atlas - one that cost me less than $10 at Walmart. Every year, for each of the six years that we made these trips, I would buy a new one. I would also, in advance of our trips, print out any maps that were specific to any state or federal lands through which we would travel, or on which we would camp. It was nice to know that I had all of these printed resources at my disposal. Every night by the campfire, while we were at anchor, so to speak, I would plot our course for the next day.
It was during this time that the opportunity arose for me to sail on the tall ship Westward from Charleston to Miami.
On this offshore passage of five days, I worked as a member of a watch group, standing watch in four hour increments, around the clock.
During that transit from Charleston to Miami, not only was I taught traditional sailing skills, but also traditional navigational skills with paper charts, dividers, parallel rules, etc.
When standing at the helm, I, like the other watch group members, would use the ship's compass to steer the ordered course. This ordered course had been determined by the watch officer (or mate) at the navigation station. This nav station was essentially a table at the bottom of the companionway in the aft cabin. At this table, there were paper charts and various instruments. Here, the watch officer would instruct us on the essentials of plotting courses and converting these courses from true to magnetic to compass, taking into account variation and deviation.
The binnacle and compass before the helm of Westward
This experience aboard the tall ship Westward was a formative one for me. Not only did it eventually lead me to purchase my own sailboat (see, "Why I Bought the Ericson 25, Part I), but also it led me to develop my long-time interest in navigation in new ways.
Aloft in the rigging of Westward while underway in South Florida
Soon thereafter, the opportunity arose for me to sail on another tall ship - the Spirit of South Carolina.
Spirit of South Carolina
I would make many transits aboard this vessel, and on each of these I would continue to nurture my interest in traditional navigational skills.
The binnacle and compass aboard the Spirit of South Carolina
I purchased various charts, and used them to practice course plotting and conversions.
Charleston Harbor and its Approaches
I also purchased several books on the subject of maritime navigation. Of all them, the best by far was Frank Larkin, Basic Coastal Navigation. In plain language and simple diagrams, Frank Larkin described many of the essential skills I had learned aboard Westward and the Spirit of South Carolina. It was (and it continues to be) a handy reference book.
I also purchased a hand-bearing compass, specifically the Plastimo Iris 50. I had seen watch officers on the tall ships using these compasses to calculate running fixes by identifying certain buoys or coastal landmarks, such as radio towers or lighthouses.
The Plastimo, Iris 50 hand-bearing compass

On the Spirit of South Carolina, with my own hand-bearing compass, I often practiced these skills. Below, we see a nautical chart weighted down with lead-filled bags. The binoculars stand by, ready for use in spotting buoys or landmarks. Likewise, the triangles await their appointed task in course plotting.
The most challenging experience in traditional navigation that I had aboard the Spirit of South Carolina took place on one of the transits that I did from Washington, D.C. to Charleston. The challenge before me was to work with the captain to track the course of the vessel without making reference to the GPS or any other electronic instrument. This task was relatively straightforward in the early stages of the transit, when we were making our way down the Potomac river. It became a good bit more challenging, however, after we entered the Chesapeake Bay, as rivers, landmarks, buoys, and lighthouses became harder to see on account of the size of this large body of water. The real challenge arose, however, after we sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay and into the Atlantic Ocean. The landmarks and the buoys were not only far-spaced but also far-removed from us.
To aid me in this task, I had purchased, in advance of this transit, a Maptech brand chart, specifically, chart number 99, Cape May, New Jersey to Savannah, Georgia. Likewise, I had asked the captain, in advance, if I could use the ship's Maptech Chartkit, Norfolk, Virginia to Florida. These two products by Maptech are very helpful, non-governmental printings of NOAA charts. I wanted to have these charts at my disposal, so that I would not interfere with the work of the captain and watch officers at the nav station in the aft cabin. To keep clear of them and their work, I would spread out the Maptech charts on the table in the main salon/galley. There I would do my plotting. In the picture below you see the hand-bearing compass, dividers, parallel rules, and my own personal log book. At the end of the transit, as we drew near to Charleston, the captain asked me where exactly I thought the ship was located in terms of its latitude and longitude. I gave him my answer, based upon my log book calculations. It wasn't a bull's eye, but being just a few nautical miles off the mark wasn't too bad
Eventually, I would also make transits on the tall ship Roseway, the most challenging of which was a ten-day passage from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Island to Charleston.
Roseway with her tanbark sails
Just as on the Westward and the Spirit of South Carolina, the ship's compass on the Roseway was the instrument by which every crewmember on helmsman duty, myself included, steered the course.
Nevertheless, the Roseway, just like the Westward and the Spirit of South Carolina, also had a GPS/Chartplotter. In the picture below, we see this electronic device housed in a protective structure on the starboard side of the companionway. Despite the fact that all three of these tall ships had GPS/Chartplotters, on none of them did the captain or watch officers rely upon these devices for the plotting their courses. Instead, they used them primarily to obtain fixes. They then plotted these electronic fixes as LAT/LONG (Latitude/Longitude) points on the paper charts. I should also mention that another important service that the GPS/Chartplotters provided concerned the fixes that could be made for those who might fall overboard. Although there were no MOB (Man Overboard) events on any of the transits on which I participated, I can say that there were numerous drills where the GPS/Chartplotters would be used to mark the spot where the "man," i.e., the jettisoned dummy (usually a flotation device of some sort), hit the water.
On this transit aboard Roseway from St. Croix to Charleston there were two separate paper charts. On one there were electronic fixes; on the other there were fixes determined by dead reckoning and by use of the sextant.
After we had gotten past Puerto Rico, the plan was to sail directly to Charleston. On the chart below, you see the projected course that indicates this straight-line approach. Due to weather and other factors, we had to alter this projected course many times. Ultimately, we had to detour through Hole in the Wall in the Bahamas and take the Gulf Stream northward to Charleston. So, how did the traditional skills stack up against the GPS in this transit? The sextant provided accurate fixes which closely corresponded to the electronic ones. Dead reckoning, on the other hand, was, of course, a much more difficult means of providing accurate information. During this transit, I read Dava Sobel, Longitude. This book, together with the real world experience that this transit provided, underscored the inadequacies of dead reckoning in open ocean sailing and the importance of having a good sextant, an accurate time piece, and a nautical almanac in hand when sailing the high seas.

The comforting glow of the compass aboard Roseway shortly before dawn
If you've read my article, "Why I Bought the Ericson 25, Part II," then you'll know that I purchased this boat for the purpose of coastal cruising, not open ocean sailing such as I describe immediately above with regard to Roseway. Would I, however, under the proper conditions and with plenty of forethought, take this boat to some parts of the Caribbean, namely the northern parts, i.e., the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands? Yes.
While I'm on the subject, I can't help but digress to share with you this story. As I said, the Roseway had to alter course in the transit from St. Croix to Charleston. This took us through Hole in the Wall, i.e., the hole in the wall, so to speak, of islands that line the eastern edge of the Bahamian Archipelago. This deep water hole or inlet is between Abaco Island and Eleuthera. Many vessels use this large inlet as a means of getting to and from southern Florida. At any rate, in the middle of the night, we passed through the hole and started making our way northwest toward Grand Bahama and the Gulf Stream. The red line below approximates our track.
I was asleep when the Roseway passed through the hole. When my watch group and I were awakened for duty at 0400, we were briefed by the outgoing watch that they had been tracking a small vessel on the radar for some time. The vessel was thought to have been a fishing boat, one that, based upon its track, was outbound either from Miami or Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. My watch group continued to track this slow-moving vessel, which for a long time was too far away to be seen with binoculars. The yellow line below approximates the track of this vessel.
Eventually dawn broke, and eventually this vessel became visible to us on the horizon. For a long time, we continued to think that it was a fishing boat, but, as time wore on, we came to realize it was not a fishing boat, but a sailboat, as evidenced by its mast and sails. Our purpose in tracking this vessel, of course, was to avert a collision. In due course, this small vessel recognized us and took action, so that it would keep us to port and subsequently cross us astern. As this small vessel drew near, I strained my eyes through the binoculars in an attempt to identify the make. This was difficult on account of the pitching a rolling, not only of the Roseway, but also of this vessel.
Finally, when the boat was at its closest, abeam of us, I looked very closely, one more time. Much to my surprise, I saw the telltale signs of an Ericson yacht - the sharp bow, the distinctive shear stripes, and, of course, the portlights angled fore and aft. Much more to my surprise, this boat looked just like every other Ericson 25 that I had ever seen. Finding this coincidence difficult to believe, I handed the binoculars to a fellow crew member. This guy, a life-long sailor and now middle-aged, had, in his early years, worked at a boat dealer in the Carolinas. This dealer specialized in Ericsons, and its was this young man's job to perform all of the commissioning services on each of the Ericsons that were sold by this dealer. So here this guy was now, standing on the deck of the Roseway with me, looking through the binoculars at the same boat I was just looking at. His conclusion? It was the same as mine - an Ericson 25. Seem too strange to be true, doesn't it? But it was. If you are that Ericson 25 owner - the one with the boat with the sky blue hull - and you are reading this . . . I was one of those guys standing on the deck of the Roseway that day. Where were you bound? All we could figure was that you were going to Sandy Point on the southwest end of Abaco Island, or perhaps somewhere on the eastern end of Grand Bahama.
Before I began my digression on the sighting of this Ericson 25 in the Bahamas, I mentioned my article, "Why I Bought the Ericson 25, Part II." If you've read that article, you might recall that I believe the term "blue water cruising" is something of a misnomer. Why? Because you can sail in blue water without sailing far out into the open ocean, hundred of miles from land. There are plenty of coastal cruising scenarios where you can experience blue water - once you get past the sediment found in the near coastal waters. Likewise, you can experience blue water in the Caribbean as you pass from one island to the next.
So where do I stand in the long-running debate between those who favor GPS and those who favor paper charts? Obviously, I do not side with those who favor a wholesale rejection of paper charts and traditional navigation. It should be clear, however, from some of the positive statements I have made with regard to GPS, that I believe the prudent mariner will possess a GPS and make use of it when necessary, but he will not be dependent upon it. Instead, he will be dependent upon paper charts and traditional skills.
In response to those who would ask what I would do in the event that those highly-prized paper charts should be lost or ruined, or that all-important compass should fail or provide inaccurate information (as it sometimes can it the presence of unwelcome ferrous metals), I would say that there is no substitute for a well-founded knowledge of celestial mechanics and celestial phenomena. There is, of course, much more that I could say about this celestial subject, and by this I don't necessarily mean the use of the sextant; I mean a true, handbook-free, working knowledge of the major stars and constellations, and also their movements (along with the movements of the sun, moon, and planets) throughout the year. 
Cassiopeia, one of the all-important circumpolar constellations

This subject of practical maritime astronomy is worthy of a separate posting, but for those who may be curious, I will simply point out here that, in my opinion, the best book on the subject is The Stars, by H.A. Rey. This is the same H.A. Rey who penned the Curious George series of children's books. His drawings of the constellations and his explanation of celestial mechanics make this subject far easier to grasp than any other book I've ever read. H.A. Rey does not address celestial navigation, i.e., the use of the sextant, but he does provide you with a means of developing a real, practical knowledge of the sky, the same practical knowledge that mariners long ago, before the advent of the compass, the nautical chart, and the sextant, surely possessed.
So, where am I going with all of this? I will tell you. In the refitting of my Ericson 25 for coastal cruising, some of which would eventually involve blue water coastal cruising (as I have defined it), I opted to install a GPS - one that I would integrate with a new VHF with DSC (Digital Signal Calling) capability. I also opted to install, however, a new compass - one that I would rely upon just as heavily as those on the tall ships upon which I had sailed.
Likewise, in the refitting of this boat, I made sure to construct a sturdy table - one that would provide me with ample room for the plotting of courses on one of my Maptech Chartkits. This I have already addressed to some degree in my earlier article, "Main Salon Table, Custom, Mahogany."
Custom mahogany main salon table with fiddles dry-fitted for sizing purposes
I could go on, but suffice it to say that, from my standpoint and my own personal experience, traditional navigation is an art that should not be neglected by the coastal mariner. For this reason, I found it appropriate to pen this posting as a preface of sorts to my subsequent postings on the installation of a GPS and a VHF in the refitting of Oystercatcher, my Ericson 25.

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