Frankly, I’m tired of some older dock hounds telling me I’m irresponsible or crazy for not having a complete set of paper charts on board. It’s important that people go to sea feeling comfortable and confident and if you need paper charts to feel that way, then by all means take them. This article isn’t me on a soapbox pushing for electronic charts. But things are changing and the younger generations, as they have been throughout human history, are the early adopters and as such catch most of the flak.
Navigation has changed a lot in the past couple of decades, thanks mostly to satellite and digital technologies. In February 2016, the USCG changed the requirement for paper charts in lieu of electronic ones. The same rule applies in Canada. As a result, the equipment that sailors rely on has changed and new skills are coming to the forefront that take advantage of this technology.
An Homage to The Past
There is something to be said for the older skills. There is an art to celestial navigation. Understanding the rotation and oscillation of the Earth is understanding a piece of the natural world and our place within it. Similarly, dead reckoning a position requires attention to currents, speed and prevailing conditions. Getting a fix from three bearing points while underway requires a significant amount practice.
To misquote the Siphonaptera, old skills have older skills upon their backs to spite ‘em, and the older skills have even older skills and so ad infinitum. Before the sextant there were variations of stellar measuring devices; octant, backstaff, astrolabe, kamal, etc. Before them, there was only an outstretched arm and Polaris. The unit for speed, knots, refers to counting the knots of rope over a given period that unspooled from the reel of a log that was deployed behind the boat.
Knowing one of these old skills is sort of like hipster curios; like wearing a monocle or flying a kite or using a quill and inkpot. It’s cool and kitschy, and might come in handy in the right circumstances, but isn’t really relevant on a daily basis.
Technology changes and skills change with them. Take Vlad for instance, he’s a sailor and software engineer and recently built an app to pull down public weather data from the US Navy and make it accessible to SSB radios and Sat. phones. Previously, in order to view the Navy website required having a robust connection to the internet. The app allows the user to send a request via SSB or Sat. phone to an automated handler (bot) that in turn takes a screenshot of the requested webpage, highly compresses it and sends it back. In the blink of an eye, you can have the world’s best and most up-to-date weather data at your fingertips. As a sailor, that is a pretty useful skill. To learn more about Vlad and his current adventure aboard his boat AllDay check out his website.
When I asked him if he had a backup GPS for his chartplotter, he replied, ‘actually I have eight.’ The younger generation usually have a cellphone, tablet or IPad and a computer on board, in addition to a GPS chartplotter and handheld GPS. These devices have integral GPS units or $20 GPS dongles that plug and play into the device. A host of proprietary and open source navigation software exist for these devices that are constantly updated and cross-referenced with satellite imagery and often with capacity for user-generated updates in real or near time.
To say that paper charts are safer than the electronic devices is to fundamentally misunderstand the functionality of these devices.
But what if your batteries die? What if you get hit by lightning? What if the satellites all go down? It is a well-worn strain by the paper chart purists. But redundancy is built into the system. Spare, isolated battery packs, solar panels, ruggedized electronics, multiple copies, various platforms, etc. There is even a sextant app that doesn’t rely on GPS! The same apocalyptic questions could be leveled, and perhaps more appropriately so, at the paper-charters; what if your charts get soaked, or blow overboard, or they catch fire from your oil lamp, or they are eaten by a goat (this actually happened to Joshua Slocum enroute to the South China Sea)?
Navigation in the sailing world is changing and with it are some of the the skills useful to sailors. It’s now more relevant to understand computer programming than how to use a sextant. There will always be resistance to change, but embracing it opens up a new world of information and possibilities.
Robin was born and raised in the Canadian North. His first memory of travel on water was by dogsled across a frozen lake. After studying environmental science and engineering he moved to Vancouver aboard a 35’ sailboat with his partner, Fiona, with the idea to fix up the boat and sail around the world. He has written for several sailing publications including SAIL, Cruising World, and was previously a contributing editor at Good Old Boat.