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Earning your cruising stripes

Electronic navigation combined with old-fashioned seamanship make negotiating Maine’s foggy coast a rewarding experience

Electronic navigation combined with old-fashioned seamanship make negotiating Maine’s foggy coast a rewarding experience

The challenges of fog, lobster pots, tidal ranges of 10 feet or more and unforgiving rock ledges are well worth the rewards of spectacular seascapes, clear waters, delicious seafood and endless gunkholing opportunities.

To really enjoy a Maine cruise and avoid being stuck in a fog-bound harbor for days, you’ll want accurate, reliable electronics, and you’ll need to practice navigating in limited visibility. Our six-week cruise Down East last summer aboard Sawdust, our Thomas Point 43 powerboat, made us appreciate the accuracy of our electronics and helped sharpen our navigation skills.

While Maine’s myriad picturesque rivers, inviting islands and protected coves provide an abundance of safe, comfortable anchorages, getting to most of them requires poking your nose out into the ocean, where you’ll be on the receiving end of a virtually infinite fetch. Mix 8- to 10-foot ocean swells with 15 to 20 knots of wind, dense fog, miles and miles of closely spaced lobster pots and any number of commercial lobster boats crisscrossing your path, and you might wonder what in the world you’re doing out there.

First things first

It’s natural when talking about navigating in Maine to start with radar, but that would be putting the cart before the horse. Indeed, I was surprised to see so many old salts sailing along in this pea soup without it. Considering the modest cost of a good radar today, I think they’re crazy.

First, you’ll need an accurate, properly mounted and adjusted magnetic compass. Even though today’s electronics are wonderfully reliable, “It happens,” as Forrest Gump declared. Years ago I lost all 12-volt DC power on my Grand Banks 42 as I was entering Edgartown (Mass.) Harbor in fog, and I will never forget that sudden, sick realization that everything was down: radar, electric horn, Loran, depth sounder and VHF. My compass and my wife’s keen eye up on the bow got us in safely.

Being seen in the fog is just as important as being able to see, so you’ll also want to make sure you have an effective radar reflector mounted high, where it will do the most good. I use one of those basic, round metal units by Davis Instruments, and I’ve occasionally asked a passing cruiser with radar to confirm that he can see me.

When conditions get really hairy, you’ll want a big, loud foghorn. Nearing Maine’s Seal Cove up the Damariscotta River in thick fog, we had our eye on an approaching radar target. When it seemed it was heading straight for us, we started sounding our horn — one prolonged blast at two-minute intervals, if under power — and during the last blast we saw a sailboat swerving from our path as it emerged from the fog. He didn’t have radar, but he heard our horn. It’s a good idea to also carry a portable air horn or even a manually operated one that is independent of your ship’s electrical system.

High on our list of fundamentals is a good set of paper charts. Besides being crucial to our safety in case of an electronics failure, I like being able to see “the big picture” instantly without having to scroll or zoom in and out of my chart plotter. I also keep a set of dividers, parallels and a pencil nearby. If I were to lose power or if my plotter malfunctioned, I’d be ready to navigate immediately the old fashioned way. In fact, as soon as the heavy stuff rolls in, I mark my position and begin dead reckoning.

For convenience I like Maptech’s ChartKits, which now come packaged with a companion CD (more on those later). Their Region 2 covers Block Island, R.I., to the Canadian Border and includes detailed charts and colorful aerial shots of popular harbors.

And finally for the basics, you’ll want a reliable VHF radio. When you get near busy commercial ports like Portland, you’ll hear freighters and tugs announce their position, course and speed on channel 16 as they come and go in fog. Of course, checking the NOAA weather report each morning is a must, as it will help you decide where and when you are going. You might also overhear others who are reporting conditions where you are headed.

Where you are, where you’re going

Nothing beats today’s accurate GPS/chart plotters for helping you find your way in limited visibility. Showing your boat’s position, course and speed-over-ground on a detailed electronic chart greatly reduces the number of things you have to keep track of when you’re under way in stressful conditions.

Sawdust has a permanently mounted Simrad CE33 plotter/fishfinder that uses C-MAP NT+ vector charts. The beauty of these charts, other than being accurate, is that they remain crystal clear even when zooming in at very close range. I also like the fact that the navigation aids aren’t identified, except for their color, until I place my cursor on them. Otherwise, the screen, which in my case is only 6-1/2 inches, would be overcrowded with data.

I found it extremely helpful to create a detailed route to where I was headed before we weighed anchor each day. Whether we were dealing with fog or tricky, rock-strewn passages — or both — it was much easier following the “red line” of our predetermined course than plotting while under way. I was careful not to plot a course that exactly followed published waypoints or steered me close to navigation aids, figuring that others would be doing this. By staying a bit off the beaten path, I avoided the potential of getting into a crowd during low visibility.

Don’t leave port without good radar

Years ago my wife and I spent 10 foggy days cruising Maine on our old, beloved wooden Grand Banks 42. Unfortunately, our most vivid memory of that voyage is the gray and yellow radar display of our ancient Decca radar. The unit was on its last legs, and it couldn’t be aligned with “course up,” forcing us to cock our heads 30 degrees to see what was up ahead. But the fog was so dense during that trip that even this tired, old radar was invaluable in helping us find our way. When we got home I replaced it with an entry-level Raytheon and kicked myself for waiting so long. This inexpensive unit was a major improvement and made subsequent cruises far less stressful.

Today we use a Simrad RA42C radar with a closed-array that has an effective range of up to 24 miles. But our coastal cruising rarely requires seeing more than 12 miles around us, and the unit does very well at this range and below. One of its nice features is its “dual range” capability. Its 10-inch landscape display can be split into two simultaneous displays of different ranges. Depending on the circumstances, I usually set it up for 6 miles and 1.5 miles or 3 miles and 0.75 miles. At a glance I can see both detailed targets close by and distance targets without having to toggle back and forth.

While I normally just use its range rings to provide distance readings to targets, my unit also has easy-to-use VRM (variable range marker) and EBL (electronic bearing line) features. The VRM is a circular-shaped marker starting at the center of the display that is manually moved outward until it bisects the target in question. Concentric with the range rings, it provides a quick, accurate distance reading. Additionally, I can easily find out the relative bearing of a target by employing an EBL, which is a straight-line marker from my position on the display to the target.

For even more advanced tracking of targets, my radar is equipped with ATA, or automatic target acquisition. This is a powerful program that allows precise tracking of up to 10 different targets. Not only does it measure the distance to a target and its bearing to your vessel, but it calculates each target’s course, speed, CPA (closest point of approach) and time required for your boat to reach the CPA. I have also found that using the simple “Target Track” feature, which indicates the moving direction of a target by displaying its past “tracks,” is helpful in determining whether I need to alter course.

But like most boaters I find that if I don’t use these features on a regular basis, it’s not easy to start using them the moment we need them. I refamiliarized myself with all of my electronic gear during a 400-mile cruise to Washington from Annapolis, Md., when conditions were ideal.

Advantages of being connected

Today the trend is for all of your electronic components to talk to each other. Furuno has done a terrific job with its NavNet system. Raymarine has espoused its SeaTalk for years, and its new high-speed version has many benefits, including video integration. Not long ago Simrad introduced its own SimNet system, and Garmin is a major player with its Marine Network. Preceding these systems was the NMEA 0183 protocol, now replaced by NMEA 2000 that allows integration of multibranded gear as well as select engine, generator and electrical system equipment.

My system — originally installed in 2000 using NMEA 0183 — is quite basic by today’s standards. My GPS talks to my autopilot and radar, and it also has an output that provides data to a laptop that runs separate navigation software. While it might not have all the bells and whistles of the very latest networked systems, it nonetheless provides enough integration to give me the tools I need to navigate in fog.

When I program my chart plotter to navigate using a route I’ve created, it not only gives me a course and distance reading to each successive waypoint, but it inserts a “lollipop” mark on my radar that represents the next waypoint. If this waypoint is near a navigation mark (not too near, remember) I will see its echo on my radar, and I’ll also see if there are any other targets near that waypoint or in my path to that waypoint — something a GPS/chart plotter cannot do alone.

This is an important distinction. I have witnessed inexperienced boaters who have set their autopilots to follow a course, forgetting that their GPS doesn’t “see” other boats or obstructions. Being integrated, my GPS and radar work together to give me the information I need when running in poor visibility.

Many manufacturers tout the ability to overlay their radar images on their chart plotters, and while I have used this function on other boats, I personally prefer not to. While it is fascinating to see a display that precisely matches both sets of data, I think it’s a lot of data on one screen. Instead, I like the simplicity of a separate radar and chart display. Split screens, or multifunction displays, on the other hand, are very convenient, allowing you to keep your eye focused on one display while viewing multiple screens of data.

Give your autopilot a rest

Because of the nearly constant presence of lobster pots, we rarely engaged the autopilot once we left Portland on our way Down East. Just when we thought we were clear of these little buggers, a few more appeared, making us keep our hands on the wheel.

More and more boats that spend a lot of time in Maine are having cages installed around their props. While very effective, they can be expensive and can cut down on your top-end performance. Instead, Sawdust, which has a single screw protected by its keel and skeg, has SPURS on its shaft. If we did run over a pot or warp, chances are it would be brushed aside by our keel. But I admit to catching and cutting one. We covered a lot of ground, getting as far as Isle au Haut, and it was inevitable we’d snag one at some point.

Staying clear of those rock ledges

As I said earlier, accurate, up-to-date charts are essential for finding your way through these waters. But you also need to plan passages around tides, especially if you’re entering an anchorage for the first time that is strewn with rock ledges. We found that it’s best to enter tricky places on a rising tide about an hour after low tide. You’ll then be able to see many of the ledges that are submerged at high tide, and if you do make a mistake and hit something, the rising tide hopefully will get you off.

I like the convenience of the tide tables that are part of my C-MAP NT+ charts. It’s a simple task to scan the area in question, find a “T” symbol, and then have my plotter display the tide tables for that day or a day in the future. I just needed to compensate for the one-hour difference between standard time and daylight-saving time. I always checked the tide tables before anchoring, since tides are in the 9- to 10-foot range. It can be a sobering experience to anchor in 12-feet of water and find yourself high and dry six hours later.

A laptop for redundancy

I’ve used PC navigation programs over the years, and at this point I still feel safer and more comfortable using a dedicated GPS/chart plotter designed specifically for the marine environment as my primary navigation tool. I’m not sure if I have a cloud over my head, but I seem to have an uncanny ability to make Windows-based programs freeze or malfunction.

Because of my professional background in marketing, I’ve always been partial to Apple hardware and the Mac operating system. So for our six-week voyage to Maine, I decided to try a new navigation software program written for Mac OS 10.3: GPSNavX.

GPSNavX is available online for $50, and it’s a bargain — that is, if you are a Mac user like me. The program uses BSB and Softcharts. Since Maptech’s new ChartKits now come packaged with companion CDs, I had everything I needed to set up my 15-inch Mac PowerBook, although I must admit it wasn’t easy registering the CD the first time. Maptech understandably has quite a security system in place to prevent unauthorized duplication of its electronic charts. Since my PowerBook didn’t have a serial port to connect to my Simrad GPS, I added a Keyspan high speed USB serial adaptor for $30.

Running GPSNavX with Maptech’s raster charts side-by-side with my Simrad with C-MAP NT+ vector charts was a good exercise in redundancy. Most helpful was the ability to zoom out on my 15-inch screen to get a bigger picture of where we were. For complete redundancy I can connect my small hand-held Garmin GPS to my Mac, thereby being independent of my embedded GPS and my boat’s electrical system.

Above all, use your eyes and ears

Even with the best electronics, you’ll need to rely on your eyes and ears when you get socked in. When the fog is really thick, slow down and post a lookout on the bow, away from your engine noise. But beware that fog does weird things to sound waves. What you think is coming from your port side may indeed be from starboard. And if you suddenly see a wake but no boat, you might want to come to a dead stop and sound your horn.

We did have a few close encounters — with a rock ledge, a sailboat or two and that one snagged lobster pot — but we were rewarded with whale sightings, seals playfully swimming near our boat, stunning seascapes, scenic hiking trails and fresh lobster bought directly from passing lobstermen. You’ll earn your stripes, indeed, but you’ll be glad you made the effort.

George Sass Sr. is the founder of Sass Communications, an Annapolis, Md., marketing and public relations firm. After returning from a one-year 8,000-mile voyage aboard Sawdust, he has been working as a freelance writer and photographer. This summer he is cruising the Inside Passage to Alaska on a Nordic Tugs 52.