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Don't lose sight of the simple approach

To paraphrase Occam's razor: When there are alternative solutions to a problem, the simplest solution is usually the best - in other words, keep it simple, stupid. This maxim holds true for boating, both power and sail.

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Only a fool would fail to take advantage of all means to obtain an accurate position at sea - and seamen are not fools - though you can go a little crazy accomplishing it. I'm referring to an acquaintance who, cruising in the Bahamas some years ago, had equipped his boat with every imaginable navigational device. He had sonar and radar, GPS and Loran. He had a chart plotter and a Yeoman plotter, paper charts, a chart table with plotter, parallel rules and numerous other plotting aids and dividers.

Of course, Loran was useless in the Bahamas and the charts weren't as accurate as GPS, but he insisted on using everything he had to avoid running aground. He failed. More than once. He was so wrapped up in his toys that he kept forgetting to simply look out the window.

I might be a voice crying in the wilderness, but I'm here to make a plea for greater simplicity. I see people equipping their boats with networked GPS, radar and chart plotters. That might not be a bad thing if they know how to use radar, understand how GPS really works and are at least competent in pilotage and chart plotting. But many aren't, and they use these high-tech crutches to mask incompetence. What happens if the electronics fail or there is a problem with the system that powers them?

I was teaching the owner of a Mason 54 to sail. He equipped his boat with an electric furling/reefing main. When he needed to bring the sail down, he discovered the electricity had failed. The backup was a hand-cranked device the size of a can opener - great fun when he had to get the sail down quickly.

We always kept a battery-powered AM radio on board, tuned to a low frequency to enable us to get an early warning of thunderstorms. The static warns of lightning; the frequency and strength of the static are the clues.

Take advantage of technology but understand its limitations.

Don't get me wrong. Technological advances are good. For example, there are "varnishes" today that don't require sanding between coats if the next coat is applied within a window of opportunity. And some modern rope materials are incredibly strong, with virtually no stretch. However, the average sailor has to know if the standing rigging and mast are capable of handling the shock loads introduced with such a rigid system.

I remember racing off Toronto in an older boat designed to the Cruising Club of America rule and beating the IOR-inspired racer/cruisers. Not being able to point as high as our more modern competitors, we took advantage of the wind patterns to sail a bit more free - and faster. We had studied the wind patterns while the faster boats were concentrating on go-fast sails and rigging. Without the advantage of knowledge gained through simple observation, we could not have competed as effectively.

I can't remember how many times I've heard people complain that their GPS/chart plotter with radar overlay is inaccurate because the plotter icon shows their position on shore when they're stopped or nearly stopped close to shore. They don't realize GPS positions become problematic at speeds below 3 knots. And they don't know how to plot their position using radar bearings in fog or using magnetic bearings in clear weather.

I use radar and GPS/chart plotters but usually on separate displays. I will sometimes compare a radar overlain plot with a paper plot and a sonar reading to check the accuracy of what I'm seeing and doing.

Sailors, taking their cues from hard-core and professional racers, are loading the decks with more and more "strings" to fine-tune sail handling. But you need more crew and more coordination to handle those lines to your advantage. Unless you're a really serious racer and don't do any cruising, sail with a simpler setup.

If you've got a large genoa or similar headsail, you probably have roller furling. However, furling headsails are difficult to change in heavy going unless you have a superbly trained crew. If you have double tracks, keep it simple and remove one sail before raising the next.

Even something as simple as using opening ports, windows and hatches for ventilation can eliminate the cost and complexity of air conditioning (and it usually smells better).

Having the latest and greatest can be fun, especially in our technology-driven society. But understand the capabilities and limitations of technology and know how to work without it. Keep it simple.

This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue.