When it comes to navigation, the best stories are the ones where nothing happens and everything goes according to plan. On a recent MarineMax Getaway to Charleston, S.C., Chuck and Ellie Rech cruised their Sea Ray 320 Sundancer out of the Intracoastal and onto the open ocean.
"It gave me the opportunity to practice my GPS," said Chuck, who spent 28 years in the Navy and has been pleasure boating since 1976. "There is a sea buoy that marks the Georgetown inlet. I was able to find it using my GPS, lock onto it, and then steer my boat toward that waypoint." For three hours, the Rechs were 15 miles offshore with no land in sight. Despite wind and current, Chuck was able to adjust, thanks to his GPS. Of course, as part of a Getaway, the Rechs weren't alone; there were nine other boats, including one piloted by Captain Ed Hale of MarineMax. "If you were by yourself, it could be disconcerting putting your faith in an electronic instrument," said Chuck. "But it worked well, took me where I wanted to go and I could do it by myself."
Today's boaters can choose from a dizzying array of technologies to help them navigate their craft, but the fundamentals of navigation haven't changed, nor have GPS, radar or chartplotters eliminated the need for basic tools like the magnetic compass and a paper chart. "Never leave the dock without a paper chart," said Captain Ed, who, in addition to selling boats for MarineMax, has a Coast Guard master's license. "What if your unit dies and you're out in the middle of nowhere?" Ed says that the best insurance against the unexpected is a good plan. By following a few simple rules, navigation-whether aided by electronics or not-can be easy.
The first step is to familiarize yourself with your route. In essence, all navigation is straightforward: You start at Point A and end at Point B. The tricky part is what happens along the way. Captain Ed suggests using both paper charts and electronic charts, if available, to scope out any landmarks you are going to pass. "If you're on a lake, it might be the shape of an island," said Ed. "Or it could be a man-made sign." When traveling on the coast, pick the occasional inlet to visually check your progress. "If you're in open water, it's harder," he said. "But on your chart, you may notice that most of the time you're traveling in 200-foot deep water, but at a certain distance there is a little area where it's only 100 feet deep. That could be your landmark."
Once you have a better visual picture of your route, it's time to narrow in on the specifics. Consulting your chart beforehand also apprises you of the channels, shallows and major traffic lanes. If you're on a longer voyage, now is the time to select waypoints to help you break your journey into more manageable legs. With chartplotting software, picking routes and establishing waypoints is as easy as clicking a mouse, and nearly foolproof. You want to make sure not to pick so many waypoints that you spend more time checking your location than you do enjoying the ride, but you also want to have enough waypoints so that if you get off course you won't need to make a major correction - every 40 to 50 miles should do.
Ed also cautions that on longer trips - usually on the ocean but also in some of our bigger lakes and bays - to make sure to take into account your boat's range. "You have to ask yourself, 'Do I have enough fuel to get there?'" he said. When in doubt, make sure one of those waypoints gives you a chance to fuel up. Captain Ed also notes that even the most up-to-date charts can't account for recent changes caused by storms or shoaling. "There might be temporary navigation aids," he said. "But there might not be. You have to use your head when you see something that doesn't quite fit the chart."
Even though Ed insists on planning ahead and not relying too much on technology, he does swear by a simple but powerful feature called Track Back. Found on even the most basic GPS units, Track Back records your route and even sets waypoints automatically. "You can then navigate back using the saved track," Ed said. "It will take you right back to the dock."
Even when going on shorter trips on your local lake, Track Back is a good insurance policy against fog or other kinds of weather. To more effectively use Track Back, Ed suggests you get in the habit of zeroing out the memory every time you go out. For boaters with more sophisticated electronics, Track Back can be integrated into on-screen navigation. "I can put the track on and it shows my boat on the screen as I'm going along the Intracoastal," said Chuck Rech. "It creates a line behind my boat like a wake. At the end of the trip, if I want to make that as a route, I can hit a button that says 'reverse course' and the software creates that track as a route. All I have to do is follow that line back. Provided I didn't hit anything coming up, I can reasonably assume I won't hit anything on the way back."
Chuck recalls a trip to Wilmington, N.C., that he and Ellie took for St. Patrick's Day. "When we left to go home the sun was shining, but halfway down the Cape Fear River we hit a massive fog bank," he said. Chuck used his Track Back feature to navigate his way home in zero visibility. "There are a lot of unlit markers and there is nothing for you to flash so you can see. The GPS kept me in the channel." Chuck says there were a number of boats following him, which upped the ante. "I guess they figured if I didn't run aground, they wouldn't run aground either."
We strongly recommend you read all of the owner's manuals related to your navigation electronics before use. Knowledge and diligence are keys for safe navigation. The United States Power Squadron and Coast Guard Auxiliary offer courses in navigation, and you can find more info at www.cgaux.org and www.usps.org.
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