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A prudent seaman in an electronic world

RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 was the second Cunard ship to bear that name. She was not named after the present queen of England, Queen Elizabeth II, hence the Arabic 2 instead of the Roman numeral II. She was built as an ocean liner, not a cruise ship.

Mike Saylor

Ocean liners are designed for transoceanic passages and must have seakeeping ability in all conditions. Cruise ships aren't designed to the same scantlings. They are meant to sail in more or less benign conditions and will typically detour to avoid storms for safety and comfort.

QE2 is one heck of a ship. (She was sold to Dubai in November 2008 to become a floating hotel.) Launched in 1967 at a cost of $80 million (present equivalent more than $400 million), she was designed to be smaller and more efficient than her predecessors, though smaller means she measures 963 feet with a beam of 105 feet. Her gross tonnage is more than 70,000 and she displaces almost 49,000 tons. After her original steam engines were replaced in 1987 by nine diesel-electric engines turning twin screws, she had a top speed of 34 knots. She was a big ship equipped with the best electronics available.
Just what does this have to do with us recreational boaters? Well, let me onto my soapbox.
Breton fishermen have a prayer that begins, "Oh Lord, thy sea is so big and my boat so small." That's true of all ships (remember Adm. Halsey's Third Fleet). In May 1995, QE2 met Hurricane Luis on the North Atlantic. She encountered a "freak" wave of 90 feet, but survived with some damage when one of her anchors came loose. There is an apocryphal story of a distraught passenger asking the captain if the Coast Guard should be called for assistance. The captain's reply: "Madame, if the Coast Guard were here they would be calling us."
With her superb electronics, QE2 still ran into a major storm that, given her druthers, she would rather have avoided. It's true that weather forecasting today is better than it was 15 years ago, but there is still plenty of room for error. The differences between reality and forecast are often due to changes in the speed or track of the weather system in question. Weather radar and satellite systems can certainly pick up most weather systems, but they can't control the myriad variables that influence them - especially smaller, more localized phenomena.
It's so easy to believe in the infallibility of the weather maps superimposed on our chart plotters or the radar images overlayed on those plotters, connected as they are to velocity and heading monitors. All we have to do to be safe is stay glued to the display or, better yet, have the data control our autopilots.
Ignorance is bliss except when we can clutter those systems with restaurants, fuel locations and other information. You can't rely on your electronics to the extent that your brain goes to sleep, leading you into a fool's paradise. You need to be capable of working out pilotage and navigation solutions without using electronics.
During the 1982 Falklands War, the QE2 transported 3,000 troops in total secrecy using no electronics, not even radar. Surprise, surprise, they got to where they wanted to go without a problem.
For years I was the electronics manager at a major West Marine store. I sold a lot of electronics and always said that any boater who did not avail himself or herself of electronics was a fool. But electronics are but one part of your safety arsenal. Think about it. Electronics are dependent on the availability of electricity. It's wise to remember that the powerboat moving too fast for existing conditions can, from the pounding, suffer failed electrical connections or fuel couplings. You could end up without means of locomotion or positioning.
In 1992 the QE2, with all her modern sounding equipment and electronic and paper charts, found that her draft exceeded the depth of some rocks near Cuttyhunk Island off Martha's Vineyard, Mass. She was going too fast in water that was too shallow for her speed, which caused her to "squat" on some uncharted rocks. (The squat effect is a hydrodynamic phenomenon whereby a vessel moving quickly through shallow water creates an area of reduced pressure under its bottom, causing the ship to "squat" lower in the water than would otherwise be expected.) Hey, if it could happen to the queen of the seas, it can happen to anyone. Even you.
Outfit your boat with all the electronics you can afford and become proficient at using them. But remember to rely on your basic skills as well. Electronics are just one means of inputting navigation information to the skipper. You then need to convert that information into intelligence. Remember to cross-check for sanity and some modicum of caution.

This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue.