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Waterlines: July 2007

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The Eyes Have It

Learning to see the world around us should be the heart and soul of navigation
By Charles J. Doane

Quiz any nautical curmudgeon on the subject of proper wayfinding these days and you’ll soon find yourself reefed down in a gale of conventional wisdom about the importance of paper charts, compass bearings, dead reckoning, and the divine art of celestial navigation. What the curmudgeons all forget in their railing against the wonderful new tools we use to find our way is that their sacred cows are all just tools, too. More primitive, simpler, hence more reliable in one sense (if not more accurate), but still they are not the organic root of navigation.

Reduced to its purest form, human navigation (as opposed to those more advanced systems used by migratory cetaceans, birds, and fish) is simply a matter of being able to look at something from a distance and say what it is. In a state of nature we can travel knowingly only as far as we can see. What we call the “science” of navigation is but the augmentation of that simple sensory ability through technological means.

I am now almost old enough to be a curmudgeon myself, and what I wonder about satellite navigation is this: Will it ultimately impair our ability to eyeball our way around a body of water? Will it cut us off from the root of the science we have created?

What satellites do is reduce it all to a video game. You are a throbbing dot on a glowing screen, and the object of the game is to maneuver your dot through the various hazards on the screen using the controls on your boat. All you need see to do this (unless you’re trying to do something very precise, like bring the boat to a dock or a mooring) is the screen itself. Everything else that you see around you—the buoys, the landmarks, the textures and contours of the shore—is little more than scenery because you are not trying to extract any information from it.

Shut down the game and the scenery at once becomes more meaningful and thus more vivid. One of the things that makes it this way is the threat it poses merely because it is unclear what is what. The tool we played with before we had satellites and plotter screens, the paper chart, represents (more or less) the accurate recollections of those who have gone before us, but gives no hint of our own current location. To figure that out, we have to figure out what we are looking at and relate it to the chart on an ongoing basis.

This can be an intense process, particularly when you are sailing in a place you have never been before. For example, I well remember the first time I sailed south down Buzzard’s Bay into the teeth of a summer sea breeze, because my two buddies and I, as we slashed to windward through the vicious chop, spent the entire afternoon arguing about the identity of the distant humps we saw on the horizon through a glaze of salt spray. The only thing we agreed on was that those humps must be the Elizabeth Islands. What we disagreed on, at great length, was which hump was which island, a debate much aggravated by the fact that the most visible landmark we could see, a tall windmill, appeared nowhere on our chart.

One of the things I realized that day is that uncertainty is a powerful stimulant. It heightens the senses and sharpens the intellect (and an appetite for argument) in a most wonderful way. I really learned Buzzard’s Bay that afternoon in a way that never would have been possible had we merely been monitoring our progress on a plotter screen. What I also learned is that eyeball navigation must always be a debate. Even when alone, you must question every aspect of every conclusion you reach and be willing to change any conclusion the moment doubt is cast upon it. You must revel in the uncertainty, in other words, and your mind and your eye must always be probing, asking questions, testing assumptions. What if the chart is wrong? What if this buoy is missing? What if this tower is not visible at this angle? And so on. And in the end, when you have solved the puzzle and have divined the identity of everything you see, you will know it and own it much more completely than would otherwise be the case.

What’s most intense is doing all this without a chart, for this is truly organic navigation. I once had the good fortune to sail under a skipper who was a master of the art and thought nothing of entering harbors he’d never seen before regardless of whether he had charts or not. Probably the most impressive bit of eyeball navigation I ever participated in was when we entered Charleston Harbor in South Carolina without a chart—at night, no less. This sounds a bit like hubris, and it is. But we sure did feel proud of ourselves after we made it into the harbor and tied up the boat that evening. The flip side of the story, unfortunately, is that my skipper ultimately lost his boat, a large Alden schooner, eyeballing his way down a river in Spain one night. Even worse, he had charts for the river and a GPS onboard, but simply wasn’t using them.

The moral of this story should not be that you should never rely on eyeball navigation. Rather, it should be that you must always rely on your eyes first and then use every means available to confirm what you see. I’m afraid that what’s happening nowadays is the exact opposite. We are teaching young sailors to navigate by prying one Nintendo device from their grasp and replacing it with another. We measure their ability by the extent to which they do not need a manual to master the device. Then later, perhaps as a “backup” method, we try to teach them some traditional skills. Instead, we should first pry everything from their hands, give them nothing, and teach them how to see the world like true navigators. Then, when they receive the tools to augment their ability, they hopefully will not be too quick to take them for granted.

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