Backup Plan

Lead Line — February 2002
By Richard Thiel

Backup Plan
It only fails when you really need it.
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I grew up in a time when a "hard drive" was a trip in a Honda Civic from San Diego to Jackson Hole, stopping only for gas and necessaries, and "high-tech chips" were made of potatoes and had waves instead of being just flat. Maybe that's why I've never been completely comfortable with technology. I'm no Luddite. I own a computer, cellphone, and laptop and not only know how to use them but enjoy doing so. In fact, I'm so daring when it comes to technology I'm thinking of upgrading to Windows XP.

Technology doesn't bother me, it fascinates me. What makes me uneasy is how ready people are to rely completely upon it. I know writers who have their life's work on their hard drive and no backup. I've never been that kind of believer. The first time I bought a car with an electronic ignition I also bought a spare ignition module and kept it in the glove compartment. (I needed it just three months later.)

The same uneasiness has always underscored my feelings about electronic navigation—first Loran, then GPS. I've never doubted their accuracy, just their invincibility. They are, after all, physical systems, and so prone to failure, as are the people who operate them. Is this paranoia? Perhaps, although twice last summer the GPS receiver I was using (a different one each time) suddenly and inexplicably went blank and, more disarming, suddenly reappeared. And by now everyone has heard the story of the GPS satellite that went haywire last summer, leaving a number of jetliners and God knows how many military aircraft seriously off course. Then there's the vulnerability of a system everyone depends on in this, the age of terrorism.

GPS may be able to put you within spitting distance of a buoy in zero visibility, but it can break. So although I use it just about every time I leave port, I also keep updated paper charts on hand, maintain a log, and constantly dead reckon my position and check it against the chartplotter—even if I never lose sight of land. For I've learned this about technology over the years: It only fails you when you really need it.

A lot of people who feel the same way think it would be nice if we had a system that we could fall back on if GPS went down or the government reinstated SA due to national security concerns. Specifically, they want the Coast Guard to continue to maintain Loran. They say that Loran is not only valuable as a backup to GPS, in some ways it's actually superior to it. The argument, which I've heard from a number of sources, goes that while Loran can't match GPS's three-meter positional accuracy, it has better repeatable accuracy; that is, it does a better job of returning you to the same spot time after time. This argument never rang true with me, so I asked PMY's resident electronics expert Ben Ellison about it. He says it was indeed an accurate statement before the advent of DGPS and especially WAAS, but that with both in place, GPS is today superior to Loran in both kinds of accuracy.

But perhaps Loran accuracy could be improved. Writing in the November/December issue of Ocean Navigator, editor Tim Queeney argues that it could (and should) be at a relatively low cost, but I still wonder whether we need to expend manpower and money to maintain a second, independent navigational system that will always be less accurate than GPS. My heart says yes, but my brain says no. Despite the occasional glitches like those noted above, GPS has proven its reliability and has plenty of built-in redundancies. Besides, it's Loran that's subject to problems, including everything from atmospheric interference to the possibility of sabotage.

We do need redundancy in electronic navigation, but I don't think it should be another high-tech system. It should be conscientious use of low-tech paper charts and scrupulous dead reckoning.


This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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