Skip to main content

Keeping A Lookout

Learn How Coast Guard Navigational Rules Work And Apply To Recreational Boaters — And Also Gain A Firm Understanding Of The International And Inland Navigation Rules That Govern How Boats Identify And Interact — By Taking Boaters University's Fundamentals Of Seamanship Course.

Sign Up Today And Use The Coupon Code: SOUNDINGS For 15 Percent Off.


It had been a long, difficult trip from Spain, and the crew were restless to get ashore after eight days at sea. This passage was in the days before GPS and modern electronics.

Rona’s electronics consisted of ancient CRT radar that consumed prodigious amounts of electricity — and thus was rarely used — and a rudimentary depth sounder that had a small LED that whirred around and gave only an approximation of how much water was actually below the keel. Other navigational requirements were satisfied with a chart, sextant, a set of tables and a hand bearing compass when close to shore.

We had two navigators on board, and one — whom I shall call Dave — liked to spend hours poring over the chart. The weather closed in as we sailed up the southwestern approaches toward Plymouth, England, our final destination. The fog was thick, and to add insult to injury the radar picked that very day to stop working. Dead reckoning was the order of the day, and Dave shouted up compass headings from below for the helmsman to steer.

And then, almost as if a veil had been lifted, we sailed out of the fog and into a beautiful, clear fall day. Ahead in the distance we could make out the Plymouth breakwater some 10 miles out. Unaware that the fog had cleared, Dave came on deck and looked through binoculars to starboard and stated that if his dead reckoning was correct we should soon see the Eddystone light — a granite behemoth 7 miles offshore and a sentinel for generations of seamen making landfall in Plymouth. He strained his eyes, searching the horizon for any sign of the light and exclaiming that it should come into view any moment. Unable to contain ourselves any longer, the crew collapsed in fits of laughter and encouraged Dave to look to port over the other rail, where the 160-foot light was barely a quarter-mile off.

I retell this story not only for amusement, but also to highlight an important facet of seamanship and navigation: Look where you are going and be aware of your surroundings at all times. These days, almost every boat has a chart plotter, and as great as these devices are, they should not be relied upon blindly. Situational awareness is critically important.

When I was studying for my master’s ticket, the instructors were very firm in their insistence that we should constantly scan the horizon for ships, the coastline or myriad other hazards. It’s very easy to become a slave to “button pushing,” as my instructors called it. GPS is a wonderful tool, but it is just that — a tool. Interviewing distance sailors at the end of the Atlantic Rally For Cruisers, they were practically unanimous in their praise for GPS, but several pointed out that there were novices who never would have attempted such a passage if they had to rely on more traditional methods. They were putting all their trust in the electronics.

I still like to have a paper chart spread out on the table next to me at the helm — I think it makes passage planning easier, and marking a position in pencil every hour is a great backup, should the electronics fail. I also still keep a sextant on board and routinely take at least one sight each day when on a passage. If nothing else, it reaffirms my wonder at the world around me — picking out a star at night and reducing it to a dot on the chart gives me a sense of satisfaction denied to those that rely solely on electronics for position fixing.

GPS can give your position anywhere on the Earth’s surface with almost pinpoint accuracy, but remember that the charts a plotter uses are often electronic versions of paper charts that may have been drawn many years ago and might not be accurate.

Floodwaters and storms bring lots of debris into bays and estuaries. A waterlogged tree trunk might float just below the surface, and contact with one at even moderate speed can severely damage your boat. Watch where you are headed and glance behind you from time to time. Be aware of all that is around you, constantly on the lookout for other vessels, many of which may be much larger than you and unable to swiftly maneuver. Look where you are going — after all, much of the fun is in the journey, not the destination. With your head buried in a screen or hunched over the chart table like Dave, you’ll miss so much.

See related articles:

- Eyes in the back of your head

- Practice, practice, practice

- Think ahead

- Don't neglect your seacocks

November 2014 issue