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Ye olde ways matter

Some years ago, the U.S. Naval Academy proposed dropping celestial navigation from its curriculum because there are faster and more accurate methods to determine position at sea.

The admirals said, “No!” Aside from being a rite of passage, celestial navigation requires and provides mental discipline and, with the ability to observe the sky, a backup system independent of the ship’s electrical systems. It’s always good to have an independent backup.

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1. Despite the technological redundancies on board, “stuff” happens, and power is lost. I found this out in the Atlantic on a racing boat that never quite made it across the Pond. Because I understood the fundamentals of celestial navigation, I was able to determine our position by jury-rigging a solution when some of the elements needed to solve the problem were unavailable. You, too, may need to solve a problem when the technology is not there.

2. Technology — it’s meant to make things easier, and that’s a good thing. However, it also tends to reduce skill levels. In the 13th and 14th centuries, the most effective weapon on European battlefields was the longbow. It was faster firing, more accurate and more effective than the “Brown Bess” flintlock muskets later used by the British during the American Revolution and the War of 1812. In 1415, the English won a decisive victory against enormous odds at Agincourt thanks to longbows. Forty years later, there wasn’t a longbow on any European battlefield. Instead, there were guns. Guns weren’t as effective as the longbow, but it took less time to train someone to shoot a gun. No matter that troops had to line up shoulder-to-shoulder and blaze away at almost point-blank range in order to get “results.” Soldiers were expendable; they weren’t required to think, to exercise judgment or behave responsibly. However, on a boat you have a duty to think, to exercise judgment, to behave responsibly. In other words, don’t let technology lead you to complacency.

3. Radar, GPS and chart plotters all make life afloat safer and more fun. The problem is we’ve become so reliant on devices we sometimes forget how to perform sanity checks on their displays. In 1956, the SS Stockholm collided with SS Andrea Doria off Nantucket, Mass. Both ships spotted each other on radar; neither established a plot. If either bridge had established a plot, they would have realized that instead of maneuvering to avoid the other vessel, both ships had turned toward each other and were closing.

4. Today, almost any vessel can be fitted with an interfaced radar/GPS/chart plotter system. Yet ships and boats repeatedly collide — sometimes with fatal results. Large commercial vessels T-bone each other despite having systems far more sophisticated than those on most pleasure boats. Professional ship officers monitor these systems. They’re enamored of the technology. However, they sometimes become so mesmerized by the clear and seemingly infallible displays, with their risk assessment and alert capabilities, they don’t look out the windows. They don’t take bearings and don’t perform sanity checks.

5. In my opinion, no reputable course on radar can be held without including pilotage. In fact, the course shouldn’t be open to anyone who isn’t already proficient with bearings, dead reckoning, time/speed/

distance calculations, and the like. These “old” methodologies are the basis for understanding and effectively using radar. Radar is all about bearings and time, speed, distance calculations.

6. GPS/plotters still need sanity checks, which involve taking bearings and manually plotting fixes and distances on paper. To make sanity checks, you have to know about magnetic variation and deviation. And you need a compass. Don’t emulate the idiot who outfitted his boat without one; he couldn’t be bothered with swinging his compass. He bought a GPS as a substitute. For backup, he bought a second GPS. He didn’t know squat about bearings or any of “that junk.” Worse, he didn’t care.

7. Against fools, the gods themselves contend in vain. I recall another boater with a fluxgate compass/autopilot. Against advice, he relied on it totally in fog. He was ignorant of tides and currents; set and drift were alien concepts. Then he was set on to rocks while “on course.” It was an expensive lesson.

8. Technology is great, but sometimes — when that S.O.B. Murphy and his girlfriend, Mother Nature, team up — the old ways can matter.

This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.