Lost Never Again

Lead Line
— February 2001
By Richard Thiel

Lost Never again
Soon GPS will give the bearing to McDonald’s.
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On 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.

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

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