Members' Online Book: Navigation and Marine Electronics, Chapter 1 of 19

Knowing Where It’s At


his retired fisherman and lifeboat coxswain from Clarks Harbour, Nova Scotia, is not the hero of my story, but I bet he could pull off the same trick

It’s an old Newfoundland story. The details change depending on who tells it but the essence of the story is always the same:

A young “come from away” goes fishing several miles offshore with a veteran Newfoundland fisherman in an open skiff. The fog comes down “t’ick as shit in a barrel”. There are no navigation aids in the boat, except perhaps an old compass with half the oil drained out mounted right next to the engine.

The old skipper is unconcerned and keeps fishing, despite the worried glances from his companion.

At the end of the day the skipper tucks the tiller under his arm, lights his pipe and steers confidently into the fog. Perhaps he stops the engine a couple of times to listen. An hour later he suddenly turns hard to starboard and his wharf looms out of the fog just 30 feet ahead.

The young man is astonished. “Skipper, how did you do that?” “Do what?” answers the old fisherman, his eyebrows raised in perplexity. “For crying out loud Skipper, how’d you find your way home?” The old man looks even more perplexed. This question confirms his suspicion that the young fellow, while very nice, is not that bright.

Well b’y, I knows where it’s at.

How It Was Done

Generations of fishermen have found their way with few, if any, modern aids to navigation. The ancient Polynesians navigated the vast Pacific and the Vikings crossed the stormy North Atlantic.

Their techniques differed, but all these seafarers had in common a sense of space and time and their place in it. They were attuned to the cry of seabirds, the direction of the wind when the fog is in and the feel of the waves reflecting off the land around their intended landfall. They instinctively knew the speed they were making and the time to their destination. They knew where they were, and they knew where their intended landfall was.

What We Have Lost

Contrast their feel for the sea to the modern sailor hunched over an electronic charting system often installed below. To him or her the crash of surf on the rocks is a fearful reminder of the penalty for a mistake, not a source of navigational information.

Or worse still, many a modern mariner does not think of what the noise means, or perhaps even hear it, wrapped in the hubris brought on by ownership of sophisticated electronics.

The Best of Both Worlds

I am not suggesting that we deep-six our radar, GPS, and chart plotter. In fact, I would never have attempted our high latitude cruises without GPS and radar. After all, many old navigators who lost their boats and died when their sense of place failed them would have been saved by a $200 hand held GPS.

And today I’m a committed electronic navigator that rarely glances at a paper chart.

But there is a reasonable amalgamation of old and new. Phyllis and I have found that our continued use of traditional navigation thinking, coupled with modern electronics, not only increases safety but has the added benefit of keeping us more aware of what is around us—much of why we go cruising in the first place.

So what is it specifically that we do to make sure “we know where it’s at” while cruising some of the world’s more remote places on Morgan’s Cloud, our 56-foot aluminum McCurdy and Rhodes cutter? Read on:

Navigate on Deck

First, our primary navigation area is on deck. There is no way that we can be properly aware of our surroundings while bobbing up and down the companionway like demented rabbits.

Why designers of cruising boats that will be sailed short handed insist on locating plush well appointed navigation stations below, while making no provision for navigation in a sheltered area on deck, is beyond my comprehension.

In the days of paper, this was a huge problem (unless you were blessed with a boat like ours that has chart tables under the dodger) but today with the availability of waterproof computer screens and plotters, there is no reason to be confined below to navigate.

We Navigate

Second, though we use electronic tools on Morgan’s Cloud, we don’t turn our role as navigators over to them. When I first learned to navigate in the days before GPS, or even affordable Loran, I used to say “all navigators are lost. The difference between good navigators and bad ones is how big the circle they are lost in is.”

Today, thanks to GPS, we know where we are to within a few feet on an abstract grid called latitude and longitude. But however we navigate, to be real navigators we still need to know where we are in relation to the three dimensional world around us.

Know What You Are Looking At

Usually this requires taking a radar-range and visual bearing off a land feature. Yes, I know, we could just look down at an electronic chart and see where we are, but that does not necessarily tell us which of the several headlands we can see ahead is the one sheltering the harbour we are making for.

Nor does it visually orient us to the position of the just submerged rock that we will come closer to as we alter course to avoid the trawler with nets in the water that has just appeared though the mist.

After logging we take a moment to plan for the future by calculating the time to the next land feature or danger. Perhaps we place a distance ring on the radar, or identify a range or bearing, that will keep us clear of all dangers.

Then we can relax and enjoy sailing until reaching our next pre-planned point, knowing that we have an understanding of our surroundings that will stand us in good stead should an unexpected course change be required.

Always Sail on a Route

And we always have a route in the plotter that has been carefully checked and that we update as necessary during the passage.

We never just sail along keeping the little boat icon in the white (or whatever colour designates deep water)—a dangerous practice that is becoming distressingly common.


Safe navigation is not about the latest fancy electronic kit. It all comes down to clearly understanding where we are at all times.

Read on in this Online Book for specifics on how to do that, and yes we deal with the cool electronic kit too.

Book Chapter Navigation:

Three Electronic Charting Dangers That Can Wreck You >>

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Meet the Author


John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

1 comment… add one
  • Matthew Mar 19, 2010, 2:35 pm

    It often seems that ever cheaper, ever more powerful technology is promoted as a replacement for actual skill. Don’t want to learn astronav? Buy a GPS. Can’t read a chart? Add 3D bottom contours to the GPS display.

    On a closely related note, several times a year I hear about pleasure craft that were destroyed when they veered into the path of ferries in British Columbia. The most credible explanation seems to be reliance on cheap autopilots in tight channels- their compasses are disrupted when they get too close to a ship, and the computer dutifully tries to correct course.

    Most of my cruising is short range in small, open boats. Around here, I don’t even carry a compass (we’re on top of a very strong magnetic anomaly) but, rather, I rely on paper charts, buoys, landmarks, the sun and the wind.

    Obviously, for cruising farther afield, a GPS, weatherfax and radar would be necessary additions; but, if offered $20,000 to spend on electronics, I’d probably just buy the basics, and spend the remaining $14,000 on safety and sailing gear.

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