A little background: It's one o'clock in the morning, November on the Great Lakes, a new moon, 8' swells on a 30' boat, a lee shore over, well, over there somewhere, and the brand new GPS has just decided that a freshwater environment is too harsh. The charts indicate rocks and things sticking up from the bottom with only about twice our keel depth over them at mean low water. Lets see, mean low water, minus one half the wave height, minus draft, divide by the average age of the crew times number of ice cubes in the cooler...and a lot of those rocks can now reach up and bite us on the butt. Oh, yeah, the engine will only run for about 30 minutes before needing to rest for about 2 hours. And, just to make my night complete, all seasonal nav aids were removed the week before.
So in the space of a few moments I'm reduced to navigating obstacle-strewn waters with an inexpensive Silva compass, a wristwatch, and a good helping of blind luck. Fortunately I knew how, having learned cross-country and dead-reckoning navigation long before GPS. The chart I marked for that night was nothing to fill a sane person with pride. My cocked hats were large enough to hide a small village. More often than not I was sighting a vague glow on the horizon and assuming the center of the glow was a town marked on the chart. The erratic bottom made the depth sounder useless for position information.
Obviously, we survived the night. It would have been a lot less likely without at least some background in non-electronic navigation. Don't get me wrong, I think a GPS-especially coupled with an autopilot-is a wonderful thing. Nothing makes the cockpit saner than an autopilot that understands tacking. Push the tack button, let the machine take care of the helm while you work the lines. But an understanding of at least some fundamentals of dead reckoning and coastal navigation are in order as a backup. Forgetting that GPS and other electronic devices can fail is not healthy.
One of the folks I worked with was debating which GPS to get for his car. He meant to avoid lugging around his road atlas-after all, the maps could be loaded into the GPS. I was in his office while he shopped online and he asked me what I thought of his picks. His atlas was sitting on the end of his desk. I reached out, picked it up, hefted it, said "I see what you mean about its size" then threw it to the floor as hard as I could. He jumped, I pointed at it and said "That still works." He bought the GPS, but I'm pretty sure he keeps the atlas in the trunk as well.
All images and text Copyright Dale Austin, 1962-2008