The first time I ever used a GPS on an offshore passage we almost lost the boat. The navigator, delighted with his new toy, had plotted a waypoint just off our destination, but somehow missed the long, low, unlit headland between us and it. We faithfully steered the course he gave us and as dawn broke were confounded to see a line of breakers straight ahead of us. It took a few panicked moments before we realized what was up and took the appropriate action. (“OK guys, let’s gybe—right NOW!”)
In the two decades since, the increasing use of chartplotters has reduced basic navigation to cursor-moving and button-pushing. These devices have made coastal sailing safer in many ways—I wouldn’t choose to be without one—but they can also foster the kind of carelessness and inattention you could never get away with in pre-electronics days. The result has been a long string of GPS- or plotter-assisted collisions and strandings. This can happen when you ignore a few basic precautions that should be obvious:
• Plan your cruise on a paper chart so you get the big picture. Small hazards are much more obvious on a big chart. On a typical plotter screen, it’s easier than you think to lay a course across a shoal or even an island without realizing it.
• Don’t link your autopilot to your plotter and have it slavishly follow a programmed route. This makes you lazy and takes your mind off the game.
• Your plotter looks like a video game and can breed that same mentality. What’s around you is real and can ruin your day. Use your eyes first and your plotter to double-check.
• Practice the basic principles of old-fashioned pilotage with your crew. It’s fun and will keep you from panicking when the plotter up and quits on you. Yes, it does happen!
Photo by Onne van der Wal/bluegreenpictures