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Necessary nav knowledge

Jan 1, 2003

Being a good navigator generally means taking information from a variety of sources, weighing it, and then combining it into a coherent picture. Modern navigators will point with pride to their integrated instrument packages and wax ecstatic about how much information can be gleaned from a few button pushes.

Of course, this great flow of data can have its downside. Today's navigators have so much information at their fingertips, it's often difficult to sort out where to begin or on what to focus. Let's take a look back through our knowledge base to figure out what we really need to know to be a "good navigator."

At some time, someone sat us down with a chart of our home waters and explained the workings of the chart, why the boat had a deviation table tacked on the bulkhead, and how to safely plot a course around the bay and out to sea. Those basic piloting skills, learned early, are still the foundation of our navigation knowledge. Open up any navigation text, attend any navigation course, or sit for any level of Coast Guard license exam and the navigation bedrock of DR, compass conversion, chart work, and non-electronic position fixing are sure to be touched on. Frequent review and use of these skills is not only smart, but could be what turns a tricky situation into a safe landfall at some point in a voyage.

At a minimum, every navigator should be comfortable opening up a chart for anywhere in the world. A navigation chart is the navigator's text, or reference book. There should be no part of it that is not familiar. But, since even the most competent navigator can be stymied on occasion, the ability to find and consult another reference sourceCoast Pilot, Cruising Guide, Light List, Tide Tables, Almanac, etc.is very important.

A voyaging vessel should carry at least the above references, more if the planned voyage requires itand every navigator should be used to the formats of each.

Once familiar with the chart, a navigator should not have the slightest hesitation in taking up pencil and rules to lay out a dead-reckoning track, calculate ETA, figure set and drift, and plot a visual bearing. In this age of electronic information, why is this important?

· First, because things do go wrong with boats' electrical systems.

· Second, there is nothing more frustrating than being invited aboard a boat as navigator and being confronted with a whole new crop of buttons and menu-scrolling requirements on some new piece of gear. The basic skills will both provide a frame of reference to begin navigating with unfamiliar gear and help in understanding the workings of the electronics gear.

· Third, because no navigator worth the salt on his or her shoulders ever relies on one piece of information; a sound familiarity with the basics provides a viable check and balance against the plethora of electronic information available on most boats today.

Failing to integrate basic piloting skills with modern electronics is one area in which many navigators get into trouble; they fall victim to infinite trust in the gear or in myriad back up systems. The human brain, especially a trained one, is still the best processor of information arounda good navigator always keeps his or hers turned on and tuned in!

After the basics, what next? Ask our group of navigators in the cockpit. One of them would say radar is indispensable. Another would have us believe that mastering the intricacies of the GPS and DGPS systems are vital to their successful use by any navigator. The racing navigator will argue that a whole new set of skills related to boat performance and tactics is what separates the winners from the losers. And then there are the proponents of celestial navigation, making the case for the ultimate back-up, the thrill of self-sufficiency. It seems everybody has a different answer for what is most important. But, once the basics are mastered, the choice of what's next is, I think, largely determined by what equipment is on the boat, and where the skipper plans to take the boat.

For example, in a purely practical sense, learning celestial navigation makes little sense to a coastal cruiser or a round-the-buoys racing navigator. The former should perfect piloting skills, local knowledge, and the integration of available electronic aids with those skills. A racing navigator on a well-equipped boat, on the other hand, has an amazing array of information available. Prioritizing and using that information tactically while maintaining positional awareness (the simple question "where are we?" should always have an answer) is a skill that few master.

The blue-water voyager, on the other hand, should have a working knowledge of celestialat least the ability to get a clean shot of the sun and create a celestial running fixalong with GPS competence. Relying on electronic systems for thousands of miles, even with numerous back-ups (easily done these days with GPS sets priced under $100) is risky (and often boring). Ask any experienced passage-maker why they sailed for thousands of miles and you'll not likely hear that it was cheaper, more comfortable, or faster than alternate means of travel. Most head to sea for something else, some connection with the ocean, a sense of adventure. Celestial navigation is a part of the total experience. For many, learning celestial is an achievement in its own right, a benchmark of knowledge whether it is actually applied or not.

Today, with a GPS at almost every nav station, and a spare in almost every sea bag, familiarity with its use and limits is almost as important as knowing how to plot a DR. However, never forget that GPS (like loran and other systems before them) is, first and foremost, a position-fixing system. All the other information available from the unit (cross-track error, SMG, CMG, TTG, etc.) has as its foundation mathematical algorithms of those same basic skills we all learned long ago. Understanding what the GPS is saying, evaluating the information, and putting it into a proper context is very important to every modern navigator.

What about radar? Radar, if installed, is a terrific tool, used to a small percentage of its capabilities by many navigators. How many navigators are aware that Rule 7 of the COLREGS requires that "proper use shall be made of radar equipment if fitted and operational, including long-range scanning to obtain early warning of collision and radar plotting or equivalent systematic observation of detected objects."? Radar is very versatile, both as a navigation aid and as a tool for collision avoidance. Learning how to use radar to make full use of its capabilities increases the options available to the navigator and can make navigation at night or in bad weather much safer.

At a minimum, every navigator should have a working knowledge of the subjects listed above, at least as far as the needs of the boat's itinerary demand. Additional skills should include a basic knowledge of weather and how it can affect a voyage; international buoyage systems and references if one is planning a voyage to another country; ocean route planning for those venturing offshore; and communications protocols, to mention a few.

Skill sets aside, what really makes a good navigator is a two-part glue of judgment and confidencejudgment to evaluate the facts and the available options, and confidence to make decisions based on those facts. The competent navigator gains confidence and judgment through lots of practice, frequent review, and a continuous thirst for navigational knowledge, not via purchasing another back-up system.


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