Brogdon: an expert for the rest of us

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Bill Brogdon — captain, author, navigation guru and Soundings contributor — has died at age 72

Bill Brogdon — captain, author, navigation guru and Soundings contributor — has died at age 72

RetiredCoast Guard Capt. Bill Brogdon was one of those rare individuals who was equally at home on the bridge of a large ship as he was at the helm of a small boat.

In the Coast Guard, Brogdon commanded three ships that ranged from a 180-foot buoy tender to a 378-foot cutter. For pleasure he operated a Nauset 27 and, for a number of years, owned a 20-foot 1969 Simmons Sea Skiff, which he considered one of the best small boats ever built. An expert in traditional and electronic navigation, Brogdon, of Cape Carteret, N.C., died May 3. He was 72.

A 1956 graduate of the CoastGuardAcademy, Brogdon was a practical, experienced, no-nonsense waterman. His Coast Guard billets took him from Alaska to Maine to Florida (and beyond), and his responsibilities included everything from search-and-rescue and aids to navigation to Loran development and the Mariel boatlift (the exodus of Cubans from Mariel Harbor, Cuba, to Florida in 1980). A former president of the International Loran Association, Brogdon was tireless in his efforts to keep Congress and the Coast Guard from mothballing the system, which he considered a crucial and cost-effective backup to GPS.

He was also a prolific writer who produced hundreds of articles, many on navigation. Brogdon was a contributing writer for Soundings, and on the subject of safety and navigation there was none better. He always came across in print and in our many conversations as seasoned, competent and capable — but never as a know-it-all. While he had the theory and science of navigation down cold, one of his unique gifts was the ability to make it understandable to just about anyone. He wrote a very good book on the subject: “Boat Navigation for the Rest of Us” (International Marine), which is in its second printing. There is a copy of it on my bookshelf.

“This is a book about the practical way to find your way around in a boat — not the chart-table, gyro-repeater, radar-assisted ship navigation and neither the wholly visual nor wholly electronic, but a practical blend of techniques designed to make it easy to find your way around, even aboard a small open boat,” Brogdon writes in the introduction. That one word used twice in the introduction — “practical” — is a fitting description for the man. A former head of the Coast Guard’s office of navigation, Brogdon had a knack for simplifying things that others tended to make overly complex.

In our 2005 Master’s Series digest “101 Answers to Your Toughest Boating Questions,” he addressed the question of the best way to retrace your route or thread your way back through a maze of islands with this answer:

“The cure for this is so simple I hesitate to mention it: Look aft frequently, carefully and attentively. … Memory experts say a mental picture is the best way to remember things.”

Brogdon always preferred the simple, reliable solution to one that cost more and required power, satellites and lots of moving parts. He was a big fan of electronic depth finders, for example, but also believed in a good, old-fashioned sounding pole, with marks every foot, for skinny water. “It can double as a push pole — another handy item,” Brogdon writes, “and lets you know immediately if the bottom is rock, sand or mud.”

In our December issue last year several writers reviewed various pieces of gear for a gift-guide feature. One writer espoused the virtues of a $115 multitool. Brogdon recommended a $7 knife.

Brogdon’s wisdom and sea sense came from his long career on Coast Guard ships and from a lifetime of knocking about in small boats. He liked to fish for fun and the table. He also navigated in some long sailboat races. When he was stationed in Maine and was responsible for search and rescue, he made it a point to get on the water with commercial fishermen so he could learn first-hand how and where and why they operated the way they did. He figured correctly that knowing the way they worked would enable his rescue teams to find them faster when they got into trouble.

In addition to his writing and work with the Loran Association, he also served as an expert witness on boating cases after he retired from the Coast Guard. God help the zealous pilgrim who thought he or she could trip him up on the witness stand. Brogdon was as unflappable as they come.

Capt. Bill Brogdon was special. I don’t think I ever had a conversation with him in which I didn’t learn a little something — and sometimes a whole lot more. He will be missed.

He is survived by his wife, Joyce Sidey Brogdon; a daughter; three sons; six grandchildren; and a sister.