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The Best and the Brightest Page 2

At Sea — May 2001
By Capt. Bill Pike

The Best and the Brightest
Part 2: At Sea - May 2001
 More of this Feature
• Part 1: The Best and the Brightest
• Part 2: The Best and the Brightest continued
 
 Related Resources
• At Sea Index
• Elecronics Editorial
 

But hey, such hassles are over. At least for those of us who are stepping into or already in the new paradigm of navigation—electronic cartography and laptops, PCs, or dedicated chartplotters. Not only is navigation with these new tools easier than ever before, but it’s also more efficient. And it’s safer, too, not so much because of the helpful features and extras that are part and parcel of virtually every electronic cartography package on the market today, but because of some fundamentals that hardly anyone seems to think about.

For starters, consider the time electronic cartography saves. Years ago, when I was working on commercial boats using a satnav or Loran to obtain positions, then checking those positions with a sextant, I was typically all by my lonesome, in much the same way a recreational boat skipper often is. This sort of thing was fine offshore, I guess, but it often fell apart or got a little freaky in coastal waters, particularly at night. In fact, in all but the most routine situations, I invariably reached a point near shore where there was simply not enough time to handle VHF traffic, keep an eye on the radar, stay oriented with both fixed and moving lights, and still stay on top of the paper charting process. Even offshore, the same sort of time crunch would obtrude, sometimes when I was negotiating a confluence of busy shipping lanes, sometimes when I was trying to pick my way around or through a bunch of midocean reefs. Contrast all this with the merest flick of an eye required to access information from a modern chartplotter. Safer? Easier? Faster? You bet.

Then there’s the matter of focus. Few boats I’ve ever navigated had a chart table that close to the helm. Usually doing any sort of work with chart tools called for being at least a few steps away from the wheel while the autopilot did the steering. The hazards of such a shift in focus, especially in congested and/or unfamiliar waters at night, are obvious. But just as obvious are the benefits that electronic cartography offers in this area, especially in terms of maintaining focus. On a recent trip to the Bahamas, while making an approach to busy Nassau harbor, I asked other crew members to occasionally do a manual spot-check plot on the paper chart, several feet from the helm, while I was stuck with the wheel and the electronic cartography at the helm.

And finally there’s the orientation issue. Making the transitions from a chart table to the real world is not only time consuming and distracting, but it’s also geographically disorienting. It’s my experience that constantly interrupting yourself by hovering over paper charts seldom produces a steady sense of position in relation to breakwaters, lighthouses, navigational aides, and other physical characteristics. The constancy of an electronic plotter, on the other hand, with an easy-to-see boat icon moving across large-scale cartography, engenders a seamless and continual sense of place that can be updated at a glance. To those who say that the same sort of immediacy is possible with a chartbook placed in the navigator’s lap or near the wheel, I’m compelled to respond that few chartplotters fall on the floor at precisely the wrong moment and fewer still require the use of a flashlight with a red lens at night.

But even wonderfully new paradigms have flaws, of course, so it’s only fair that I admit that electronic cartography has at least one sorry defect. At the start of the cruise through the Bahamas I referred to earlier, it fell to me to install the navigational software and electronic cartography on our marinized laptop. The job was complex, to say the least, entailing interfacing a GPS that had to be routed through an intermediary gizmo with little blinking lights and trying to decipher an instruction booklet that seemed to have been poorly translated from Sanskrit.

But lemme tell ya, folks. The seemingly hundreds of cellphone calls I had to make to young, otherworldly support people with spectral voices dang near drove me to the brink of anti-social behavior. After spending roughly six hours with various coaches evincing various levels of compassion from various time zones, I bottomed out by contemplating long-distance, contract murder. However, I must admit that ultimately getting the whole system up and running compensated for these negativities, and making Nassau with a hot-pink boat icon leading the way made it all worthwhile.

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

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