February 22, 1978, an Atlas F rocket hurled a 992-pound satellite named
Navistar I into space, starting a process that would have a greater impact
on pleasureboating than anything since the invention of the screw. The
payload, whose official title was Navigational Development Satellite I,
represented the first step in creating the Global Position System (GPS)—six
groups of four satellites—designed to tell a select group of people
with access to a special receiver where in the world they were.
The next GPS milestone occurred on September 1, 1983, when Korean Air
Flight 007 was shot down by Russian fighter jets. The tragedy, in which
a navigational error caused the Boeing 747 to stray into Soviet airspace,
caused the deaths of 269 passengers and moved President Reagan to make
the heretofore military-only system available to virtually anyone who
could afford a GPS receiver. The only catch was Selective Availability
(SA), introduced in March 1990, which allowed the U.S. government to introduce
error into the system to give it an edge in the event of a conflict. Then
on May 1, 2000, President Clinton, recognizing that just about everyone
had figured out a way around SA, removed it, allowing the average boater
to find the location of a crab pot in pea-soup fog in the dead of night,
give or take 10 feet.
The way GPS works is—well, who cares? A technology that can pinpoint
any location on earth with such accuracy has understandably been embraced
by everyone from lobstermen to surveyors, and soon it will touch nearly
everyone’s lives in ways few envisioned a couple of decades ago.
Farmers use it to plow fields, and road maintenance workers use it to
keep snowplows on the road when landmarks disappear. Engineers employ
GPS to position bridge supports, and starting in 2003 all cellphones will
be required to carry a chip that uses GPS to locate the caller, the purpose
being to enhance the 911 emergency response system. One writer recently
observed that in just a couple years, GPS will be so much a part of everyday
life, children won’t understand the concept of lost.
But few have benefited from GPS to the extent boaters have. Like astronauts,
boaters must cope with a medium devoid of landmarks and remarkable for
its unrelenting sameness. When disoriented, both space and water travelers
must rely on their five senses and wits to find their way, all of which
are notorious for their trickery. That is still the case for spacemen
(although GPS can provide locations in near space), but today a $400 handheld
device can not only provide boaters with latitude and longitude, it can
also place them on a facsimile of the earth complete with directions to
the nearest buoy. Soon it will even give them the range and bearing to
the nearest McDonald’s. Lost at sea? Never again.
Unless you’re a Luddite, it’s hard to see the downside to this
revolution. The more people who know where they are on the water, the
fewer who are likely to get hurt and the more who can enjoy the sport.
Last summer on a passage from New York to Nantucket, I again marveled
at the unerring accuracy of my Raytheon Raychart and C-Map navigational
software. It was so easy my 15-year-old daughter could have done the whole
thing, including laying the course. Never did I need to consult bulky
paper charts or a bobbing compass—just keep the boat icon in the
virtual sea lane. And yet as we approached Buoy 1 and the arrival alarm
sounded, I had the nagging feeling that I hadn’t accomplished much.
I’d risked little, so I felt entitled to little satisfaction. But
who did I think I was, Ernest Shackleton? We were all safe and comfortable
and had successfully skirted the dangerous shoals southwest of the island.
Wasn’t that worth whatever lack of accomplishment I felt? I must
admit, it was.