How-to: Navigating on a Bareboat Charter

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So you graduated from navigation class where you practiced dead reckoning, doubling the angle on the bow and maybe even celestial nav, and you now feel well prepared for your first charter trip. Well, you won’t be doing any of that on vacation—not past the first day, anyway.

Most charter boats today have chartplotters near the helm, and there’s a briefing before you cast off, so chartering isn’t as salty as it used to be. I’m not saying that navigating while on vacation should ever be haphazard, but there are some shortcuts that will get you through the vast majority of charter cruising grounds without calculators, calipers or even a roller plotter.

1. The Must-Dos: There are a few must-dos even on vacation. Do review the charts of the whole area and also the details of any anchorage you’ll be using during the week. Do attend the chart briefing even if you’ve sailed in the area before. Storms take out markers and create shoals, new rules may be in place, and periodically, a new hazard like a wreck will make an anchorage off limits. All these should be highlighted in your briefing. Do learn the nav rules of the region (not all are Red Right Returning) and learn the marker system (cardinal marks, etc.). Do read the cruising guide, not only for shoreside entertainment options, but also for any hazards to navigation when entering a pass or anchorage. Do check that your plotter is set to English and to feet before you leave the base. Do get a weather forecast and know how to get updates. Do use both the plotter and paper charts—they don’t always agree. Finally, do put a pair of binoculars near the helm. I once watched a gal go full speed ahead out of a marina in Tahiti, never having looked at the charts or turned on the plotter, and with no binoculars to see the numerous markers that warned of shoals in all directions. She got lucky.

2. Caliper Fingers & Bar Karate: Some folks arrive at their charter base with a full complement of nav tools, and that’s great for practice. However, unless I’m doing long passages or working with tricky entrances, I usually resort to caliper fingers. That’s when you measure the distance to your next anchorage with your thumb and index finger, and then transfer said estimate to the side of the chart to read the distance on the longitude scale. The same applies to a rough course estimate. I put the side of my palm on the direction to go, put it on the compass rose and get an idea of which way to head initially, then I dial in the course more precisely as I approach. Palms on the charts are sort of like bar karate when racers dissect all their moves versus the competition at the bar after the race.

3. Estimating Time/Speed/Distance & Sundown: Time x Speed = Distance. Simple enough. You don’t need serious algebra or a calculator when planning the arrival at your destination. A rounding calculation in your head should do. If you sail at 6 knots and your anchorage is 8 miles away, plan on 90-100 minutes before you have the hook down. (You’ll cover six miles in 60 minutes and another two miles in 20 minutes for a total of 80 minutes. After that you’ll need a few minutes to get the sails down and secured before motoring to the anchorage, finding a spot and dropping the hook. In this scenario, you’ll have 10-20 minutes to get that done.) A miscalculation could have you navigating a tricky entrance at sundown or later.

Speaking of the sun—a very basic rule for sunset time is to hold your arm out straight and tilt your finger so it’s parallel with the horizon. Measure how many finger widths it is from the sun to the horizon. One finger is about 15 minutes. A fist is about an hour. Yes, people have different sized fingers, but they also have different length arms, so the system works. Being able to estimate the time until sunset should warn you to get somewhere safe quickly as the day gets long. Do pay attention to sunrise and sunset times, and do get official stats during a weather forecast.

4. Keeping a Log: Keeping a log is optional, but a good idea. On charter, it provides a record of places visited, which is especially helpful when there are multiple anchorages in a day. On my own boat, I keep an hourly log when underway. At the top of the hour I mark down lat/lon, wind speed and direction, whether motoring or sailing, barometric pressure and sea state. I also do a quick visual of the engine room, bilge pump counter and battery charge. This way nothing sneaks up. I’m not that strict on charter, but it’s a handy teaching tool when people are taking turns at the helm. The log is completed on the hour or at watch change.

5. Chartplotter Basics: A chartplotter at the helm is almost a given on charter boats today. Get to know the basics like the magic button that brings your cursor back to the boat instantly so you don’t need to hunt around to find the ship. Use it to get quick distance and course information. Note the course needed when doing an entry and use the reciprocal to get back out. When entering an unmarked channel, use it as your second set of eyes, but also remember that the charts may not have been updated or the instrument may be un-calibrated. So get your eyes out of the boat and don’t rely solely on the electronics, because what you see is usually what you get.

Navigation shouldn’t be too tricky on charter. Relax, employ the basics, and you should be fine. In the words of the immortal Captain Ron, “I don’t navigate boss, I just steer.” 

September 2018

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