Electronic Navigation: Lost at Sea

By Meghan Miner and Caitlin Stier



Text by Meghan Miner

Commercial fishing is one of the world’s most dangerous jobs. Out at sea on the final frontier, brave fishermen face unsteady working platforms, stormy seas, isolation and now… uneducated boaters.

In the summer months, coastal waters fill with pleasure boaters and the path to the sea becomes a maze. With cool waters and warm summer air, fogs can roll in quickly and without warning, obscuring visual cues from land. It’s then that the distress calls start to go out- it seems a large percentage of pleasure boaters don’t know how to find their way home in the fog. And… ironically, it’s partially due to GPS.

Stories abound of GPS users taking a turn for the worse in their cars- following their units blindly off cliffs or into lakes. And, it seems that this phenomenon is not unique to land, this remains true even when the consoles are at sea.

The bottom line is: reliance upon electronic navigational devices may be undermining our ability to navigate; it’s not that we are losing the ability to learn the necessary skills, but that we just aren’t taking the time to. Seen as a matter of convenience- many boating hobbyists are foregoing traditional navigational skills and are instead relying on GPS units or smart phone apps to find their way home.

Boatwise, a company that offers at-sea navigation courses, collects their own data via surveys at boat shows and seminars to see if boaters are taking the time to learn basic navigation skills. Captain Rick Kilborn, founder of Boatwise says that the majority of recreational boaters think they don’t need to know how to navigate because they have a GPS chart plotter. Captain Kilborn then added that he has even been asked, “if the Coast Guard paints a line down the middle of the channel so people know what side to stay on.” And, says Kilborn, “the guy was serious.”

And, the Coast Guard has noticed the after-math: an increase in distress calls issued by boaters unable to find their way back home, since the popularization of GPS technology at sea. At-sea navigation is a complex puzzle in which tides, currents and wind can all work to pull a boater off-course. Because there are no road signs out on the big blue, navigation – particularly the ability to return home from this foreign and hazardous environment beyond the sight of shore- is an issue of life or death. There are several problems with relying upon a single method of navigation at sea:

    User Error

    Because there are no roads or turn signs- a course may take a boater across hazards that must be avoided- other boats, floating logs, underwater obstructions. Boaters should be able to regain course after taking a detour. (See audio slide show).

    Malfunctions at Sea

    Although rare, electronic devices have been known to succumb to the unfriendly saltwater environment. In the instance of a power outage on the boat- could you navigate home using charts

    Not Understanding your Other Equipment

    While most people know that compasses show directional information thanks to the magnetic field of the earth, what they probably don’t realize is how easily things like other equipment on board, car keys and cell phones can cause the compass to display incorrect direction information. Compass deviation can be a serious problem at sea, particularly if your backup means of navigation is to rely on the directional information of the compass.

“Navigation is not hard- we teach it in one day,” Captain Kilborn says, but it is a skill you can lose. “If they get the proper instruction, it raises them to a completely different plateau. The more they know, the safer they are. They just need to be strongly encouraged- you always have to have a plan B.”


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