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Say No To Waypoints

Look Ma, no waypoints! This track shows the author’s recent approach to an anchorage in Maine

Look Ma, no waypoints! This track shows the author’s recent approach to an anchorage in Maine

Ever since they first appeared in my navigational toolbox decades ago I have been wary of waypoints. They certainly do seem helpful, these electronic flags we plant in the ether to guide us to where we want to go. But I noticed early on they also tend to distort our perception.

Part of the problem is the way they are presented to us, exhibit one being those graphic “highway” displays we’ve seen on screens ever since GPS receivers first invaded our nav stations. Here we see our waypoint as a shimmering Emerald City of Oz on the horizon, with a Yellow Brick Road rhumbline route leading directly to it. Stray from the road, and a cross-track error feature flashes a warning and tells you which way to steer to get back on it.

This is a particularly bad way to think about getting anywhere under sail. Back in the day, I sailed many times with skippers who, when dragged off an ideal course by some fickle breeze, thought only about how to get back to that magic road. Somehow they forget that “rhumbline” is a plastic concept and that you can always draw a new one.

More sophisticated electronic nav features have largely cured this disease, but still, I think the concept of an electronic waypoint is dangerously seductive. It is even more seductive when combined with the popular steer-to-waypoint feature found on modern autopilots. For a worst-case example of where such tools might lead you, I need point no further than the tragic “death by autopilot” Aegean disaster of 2012, wherein four crew evidently all fell asleep and perished when their self-navigating Hunter 376 slammed into a rocky island off the coast of Mexico.

Part of me has always been a purist at heart and believes it is important to cultivate traditional navigational skills. Another part, of course, is just plain lazy and would never think of giving up the convenience of modern electronic navigation. So for the last couple of years, to reconcile these conflicting tendencies, I’ve been conducting an experiment while cruising the New England coast on my own boat. I still use GPS and run electronic charts (on two different devices) to keep track of where I am and where I’m going, but I don’t enter any waypoints to navigate to.

It has proved a marvelous compromise. I still have the security of always knowing where I am, but without a waypoint on my screen, my thinking is both more fluid and more analytical. Instead of fixating on displayed distance, bearing, cross-track error and time-to-go values, I spend much more time relating what I see on my chart to what I see around me. I no longer think in terms of getting to any specific spot, aside from my ultimate destination, but instead evaluate my progress more generally, thinking in terms of apparent wind angles, likely wind shifts and general areas where I might change direction. I estimate in my head distances and relative bearings and sometimes (egad!) even use dividers and a parallel ruler on a trusty old paper chart to confirm my guesses. In short: I think much more like a sailor.

Here’s another trick I’ve come to recently: turning on the track feature on my chartplotter. This is something I never used to do. Like an egotistical Italian race-car driver I always figured what was behind me wasn’t important. But now I find that referring to a line on a chart showing exactly where I’ve been allows me to extrapolate and perceive more accurately, and again more fluidly, where it is I am going. Where before, when navigating to a waypoint, I simply stared at an ever fluctuating course-over-ground value and tried to match it to a fixed bearing-to-waypoint value (or worse, just punched the steer-to-waypoint button), I now glance at my track and can feel in my guts whether I’m still on a proper course or not.

On long passages, I do still use waypoints to orient my thinking. And of course, I still use them when navigating in fog. Otherwise, I have cast them aside and am free of their tyranny. You should try it sometime. You just might like it. 

October 2019

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