What to do if the Electronics on your Boat Fail

What Next?

Let’s say that, for some bizarre reason, your electronics suite fails, either entirely or partially. The tools and techniques you’ll need to keep on keepin’ on are arguably old-fashioned, but they’re also highly effective.

An aid to navigation is a helpful tool when trying to shoot a quick bearing at sea.

Some years ago, the folks at Nordhavn lent me one of their new models for a ten-day sea-trialing excursion to the Bahamas—I was to take the boat from Miami across to Bullocks Harbor in the Berry Islands and then proceed on down through the Berrys, anchoring here and there, and finish up with a dropoff at a marina in Nassau. I picked two friends for crew, one a guy who’d spent lots of time afloat and the other reasonably salty as well.

Because our Nordhavn was brand-spanking-new, she had no permanently installed navigational electronics. Challenged by the situation rather than deterred, I’d arranged to have an electronics company ship me the latest in GPS receiver/antennas (with a temporary mount) so I could interface it with a laptop loaded with the latest in electronic cartography. We unpacked everything, along with a new VHF (again, with temporary antenna), an EPIRB, and some other odds and sods, in the saloon of our vessel the evening before we hit the trail and it was: Whoopee! Christmas! until we made a gloomy discovery.

While the receiver/antenna seemed reasonably ready to boogie, the laptop (or the cartography loaded into it) refused to cooperate. Indeed, as I repeatedly tried to produce the cartographic interface I’d so trustingly counted upon to navigate the Berrys electronically, all I could get were cheeky messages on the laptop’s otherwise blank screen. You know, stuff like: YOU GOT THE WRONG ANTENNA, DUMMY! and WHY THE HECK DIDN’T YOU CALL AN ELECTRONICS TECH TO DO THIS INSTALL, FOOL?!

Aye, Aye Captain Queeg

I slept fitfully that night. Not that I was at all unfamiliar with the rudiments of coastal navigation that’ll get you where you need to go without benefit of a positioning device, whether it be a sextant, Loran, SatNav, GPS, or whatever. Indeed, I’d successfully dealt with situations where I’d had little more than a chart and a compass to see me through. But I was dreading the anxiety, I suppose—the constant questioning—that tends to accompany pure, old-fashioned bare bones cruising, particularly when done in totally new territory. 

The next day brought a couple of edifying developments, however. The first came in the morning—a parcel I’d ordered via priority mail arrived from California containing a gizmo that put the laptop and its cartography on line at least provisionally, thereby ameliorating the angst I’d endured the night before. And the second arrived later that afternoon just as we left Miami’s Government Cut headed for Bullocks—immediately after one of my crewmembers keyed in the first electronic waypoint of our trip, both of them asked in mind-boggling unison why the heck I was concurrently hovering over a big paper chart, working through a process that was very mysterious, at least to them. 

Old-school navigators call the process “taking departure.” In essence, it means physically noting—usually with a sharp, easy-to-erase, No. 3 pencil on a paper chart—the precise time and location of one’s departure from land en route to an offshore destination. As we’d passed the sea buoy at the end of the cut, I’d first written down the latitude and longitude readings from our laptop in a notebook. Then I’d marked the time and plotted our position as a small black dot (with a circle around it) just a tad to starboard of the buoy’s symbol on the chart, thus producing a navigational fix that, incidentally, jibed nicely with our first laptop-displayed waypoint. Then finally, using parallel rules, I’d drawn a course line from the fix to a spot just north of Moselle Bank about 45 nautical miles distant, the location where I planned on altering course slightly south for Bullocks. “At this speed,” I’d announced after walking a pair of dividers along the course line, “we’ll make Moselle about 7:30 tonight.”

“Why all the Captain Queeg stuff?” asked the waypoint-key-stroking guy, gesturing dismissively toward the chart. “We got perfectly good electronics.”

“Yeah,” agreed the other guy. “Seems like a waste of time.”

Hypothetically Speaking

I have strong opinions about navigation. So a lively discussion ensued, one that lasted well into the evening. Basically, it turned upon what I saw as the distinct possibility, particularly in light of the finicky nature of our toggled-together electronics extravaganza, that we’d lose positioning capability somewhere along the line. “What if it happened at this precise moment,” I concluded, while penciling in yet another of my waste-of-time fixes, “What next?”

The question was a profound one. For no matter how powerful and reliable an electronics package may be, it’s as subject to failure as any other component onboard, whether said failure’s due to an electrical issue, Mother Nature, or what one of my maritime academy instructors used to call “somebody’s  bone-headed mistake.” And minus electronics, a navigator has no choice but to fall back upon one of the oldest navigational methods known to man—ded (or deduced) reckoning, a rather easily acquired skill that allows him to predict his present position based on an earlier fix, presupposing, of course, that he’s already jotted one down someplace on a chart.

Let’s get hypothetical for just a bit. Let’s say the GPS on our Nordhavn had actually given up the ghost on the run to Bullocks. The weather got plenty bad once we hit the Great Bahama Bank that evening, with winds gusting to 25 knots, headseas cresting at 10 feet or more, and fog banks and rain showers coming and going. And let’s say 15 minutes prior to the demise of our GPS we’d put an accurately timed and positioned fix smack dab on our course line. How would I have continued to navigate safely throughout the rest of the night, since anchoring did not seem like a viable option?

The procedure’s a straightforward one. From my most recent fix, I’d have begun to ded reckon towards my destination, while gathering every scrap of navigational information I could glean from the situation I’d gotten myself into. For example, after running for a half hour or so, I’d have marked the time as well as an estimated position on our course line (with a small black dot beneath a half circle), based on our speed (predicted from previous fixes and checked against onboard instrumentation if still functional) and the fact that we’d closely adhered to the course line since taking departure. Then, if possible, I’d have checked my depthsounder to make sure its readings matched those near my estimated position on the chart. Moreover, I’d have begun getting big-time intense concerning the basic tools I’ve used over the years to navigate all sorts of vessels safely all over the world, from Nordhavn trawlers to oceangoing ships.  

Binoculars, Stopwatch, Compass 

A prime tool of the navigator’s trade: a well-made set of 7 x 50 binoculars, kept prefocused and ready go.

Binoculars top the list of these tools. Even when poor visibility and/or darkness prevails, my well-traveled 7 x 50 Fujinon Poseidons are critical to my spotting and accurately identifying aids to navigation, the point being either to establish or estimate a position based on an aid’s location. Back in the bad old days, I and virtually every other supply-boat driver in the Louisiana oilfield, periodically relied upon a rough-and-ready piloting technique developed and popularized by Cajun mates and skippers. The technique was simple. While ded reckoning to a far-distant semi-submersible, say, you’d deviate from your course line now and then to check the “block numbers” on an oil rig with binoculars and use the numbers in conjunction with the “block chart” in your wheelhouse to establish a fix. Does an oil rig qualify as an aid to navigation? On a dark and stormy night? Oh yeah!

Next come’s a watch. Over the years, I’ve discovered that positively identifying a light on a buoy or some other aid to navigation after dark in bad weather is darn difficult without a solid timepiece, especially one with a stopwatch function. Such lights not only broadcast a particular color, they also glow for very specific lengths of time and in certain sequences. For instance, the notation: “FL R 3 sec” on a chart denotes a red light that flashes every three seconds, a characteristic only a stopwatch can precisely measure under dicey conditions. 

And last is a good compass. When navigating coastally without electronics, I think the best way to produce fixes and reasonable estimated positions is to take bearings on shoreside features or nearby navigational aids. The following technique is my favorite because it can be accomplished by eye (in a pinch), or better yet by using a compass, handbearing or otherwise. Imagine, for starters, that you’re heading west past a point to your north surmounted by a lighthouse, church, tower, or some other structure that shows up on your chart as well as visually. As you approach, you wait until the structure bears approximately 45 degrees relative to your starboard bow and mark the time, usually by hitting the start button on your stopwatch. Then eventually you hit the button again (thus stopping the watch) when the structure is directly abeam. Using elapsed time as measured by the watch, your speed (either estimated or taken from a pitot tube or other onboard device or technique), and the formula: Distance equals Speed multiplied by Time (D=S x T) you can now calculate the distance run between bearings, which in accordance with trigonometric principles, is precisely your distance off the point, a measurement you can also use to produce a fix.

And Finally, Remember!

In addition to the basic, coastal navigational tools and techniques that can stand in for an ailing electronics suite [I recommend Capt. Bill Brogdon’s Boat Navigation for the Rest of Us—Finding Your Way by Eye and Electronics  (International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press) to get a handle on the entire portfolio], plain ol’ common sense comes in handy as well. The color of the water around a boat, for example, often serves as an accurate indicator of depth to a navigator without a depthsounder. And an impromptu, fore-and-aft range (formed by trees, steeples, radio antennas, etc.) can keep an inbound, electronics-deprived vessel from being pushed subtly sideways out of an unfamiliar channel. And finally, remember—if you get confused and disoriented by an electronics glitch and your radio’s still working, use it!

“Where are the markers that I see on this damn chart,” demanded one of my crewmembers as I steered toward the rock cut that leads into Bullocks Harbor at 9:00 the next morning.

“Yeah,” said the other, conveying the same sense of betrayal.

Hmmmmm. Using my trusty VHF, I hailed a fellow who’d just zipped past our Nordhavn in a heavily laden, outboard-powered Carolina Skiff—turned out his name was Chester Darville and he was handily headed for the marina we’d reserved a slip in.

“No problem,” Darville replied after pulling a tight, practiced turn into the cut and then throttling back. “The markers gone, man. But keep goin’ like you goin’. You all right. Follow me Cap, you be fine.”

The navigational technique mentioned in the text entails taking two bearings, one at 45 degrees relative, the other at 90 degrees relative.


This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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