17 December 2014

Chart plotter assisted strandings

We all know that I'm a curmudgeonly Luddite and if you despise this aspect of me, then I don't suppose you read this blog.  As it happens, I rather like my little Garmin 76 GPS.  It's as old as the century and still does all that I want it to.  I find it very handy for working out how far it is from A to B, as I have all my usual routes fed into it and can extrapolate from them.  I feel no need to have anything better - not in the least because my handheld GPS is completely waterproof and needs no aerial - and I most certainly do not want a chart plotter.

I have used one of these devices, so am not coming here completely from uninformed prejudice, but while I can see its use for sneaking up a narrow channel in the dark, or poor visibility (as long as you are confident of your waypoints), I am at a loss why anyone should prefer to use a tiny screen instead of a 43 inch by 29 inch chart.  Where, pray, is the advantage?  However, by far and away the worst thing about a chart plotter, is that as you scale down ie, (for those who get confused about the difference between large scale and small scale), show a larger area of (land and) water on the screen, most chart plotters eradicate 'extraneous' detail.  Like buoys.  Or reefs.  Now the smallest scale chart will most definitely omit buoys and even anything but the most major lighthouses, but it will never omit a reef.  So if you are racing across the Indian Ocean, as a Danish boat was recently, and happen to make a blunder that sends you heading directly for a reef a couple of hundred miles north, north east of Mauritius (as far as I could deduce from the radio), then your navigator, placing his fix on the chart, will say, 'Good heavens!', or words to that effect, 'there's a bally reef in the way', and advise the helmsmen to alter course accordingly.

However, if he's sitting looking at his chart plotter, cranked down to small scale, the reef won't be shown and there will be no warning of its existence until the boat blunders on to it.

Here were the excuses:
  • "The boat was going very quickly".  Well, about three times as fast as the average cruising yacht, running in the Indian Ocean.  About the speed at which a decent-sized ship would travel in times long before GPS.  Considerably more slowly than a WWII bomber.
  • "GPS isn't always that accurate".  No?  Well, since that nice Mr Clinton turned off the 'wobble factor', it has been sufficiently accurate for courier services to navigate by.  I dare say it will show you when you are within cooee of a fair-sized reef.  And if it isn't that accurate, why are they relying on it so heavily?
  • 'The charts aren't always accurate".  Well, true, but the French and the British were squabbling over that bit of water a couple of hundred years ago and had a pretty good idea of where all the bits of rock that might damage their ships were located.  And if the charts aren't that accurate, is it not rather poor seamanship to go hurtling along in that manner?
Did they say: "the navigator was incompetent"? No.  Did they say "we had the wrong scale set?" No.  Did they say "we had no paper chart to provide a reality check to the chart plotter"? No.  They blamed everything from the weather: breezy, the time of day: dark, to the technology.  The one person who received no share of the blame at all was the navigator.  But of course, it's far too traumatic to admit "It was my fault".  Poor fellow would probably require counselling.

Of course, we can all make this mistake and many others; I am far from the perfect navigator.  A kind guardian angel guided me through a cluster of rocks on one occasion when my pilotage was well out.  They were well large enough to wreck my boat.  I've come out of the hatch to see the beach but a few yards ahead.  I've hit a navigation mark before now and run aground more times than I care to remember.  But in each and every case, it has been my fault.  Sure the charts have sometimes been misleading and the navigation mark wasn't where it was shown, but as I was doing the navigation, the responsibility was mine.  GPS and chart plotters add to the information available to the navigator.  It should be easier than ever to avoid shipwreck.  No-one can blame the chart plotter for assisting the stranding - but it's increasingly common to hear it being used as an excuse.

08 December 2014

A strange fetish

Dave Z's comment recalled me to myself.  I have been musing muchly of late, but for reasons best know to my subconscious, have not inflicted such musings on an innocent world.

I've recently encountered one of the stranger boating fetishes on several occasions: this strange insistence that a cruising boat - pardon me, 'expedition vessel' - has to be built of steel.  For strength, you know.  Well, the only time I can think of the strength being of real value is when you run ashore on a solid object, from which you can easily access dry, and inhabited land.  What's the use of having a steel boat that takes longer to crush in the ice than that built from another material?  You still get crushed.  Or being marooned high and dry and largely intact on a reef in the middle of nowhere?  You're still marooned.  Oh, of course, you turn on your 'device' and magic the maritime equivalent of the AA to come and take you home.

But sarcasm apart, and I admit I was being a teensy weensy bit sarky there, why this fetish for steel?  Sure, I know that you can hit solid things a lot harder with a steel boat and get away with a few dents, but isn't the object of the exercise not to hit anything so excessively solid?  How many people do you know who have lost their boats because they weren't built of steel?  How many times have you hit a solid object with something other than your keel?  I've been aground more times than I care to think about, but it's invariably the keel that has taken the major impact.  Now, if you are sailing around in a delightful barge yacht, or traditional Chinese junk, you will ground on something less solid than steel (although the junk, with its watertight compartments, would take a bit of sinking), but on the other hand, with such shallow draught you are less likely to hit anything and if you do, you can step off the boat and set to on your repairs.  And if you are sailing such a quirky boat you probably don't regard it as an 'expedition vessel' (or take yourself ridiculously seriously).  Because, at the end of the day, isn't this what it's all about?  The steel boat, built brutally strong and undoubtedly with rope reels on deck, fore and aft, is a statement.  "Look at me: I'm about to do something really, really heroic."

But a 29ft, wooden yacht sailed the NW Passage last year.  (Yes, I know that's not quite the same as doing it 20 or 30 years ago and they had plenty of support, but it's still not to be sniffed at.) The late-lamented Shrimpy was sailed (somewhat carelessly, it has to be said) on to a reef and was patched up in a couple of days. 

40 or 50 years ago, nearly everyone was sailing wooden or (later) fibreglass boats.  They sailed without radar, GPS, or any other of the aids that nowadays most people require to cross the Irish Sea.  Their charts were limited in number and out of date.  There were no cruising guides.  If they had engines, they were unreliable: no forecasts, rarely tide tables.  But they sailed safely and happily around the world and generally didn't end up stranded on reefs.

So I'll continue to say that my perfect boat will be built largely from wood, thank you very much.  And I'll get rid of that extra draught, so that running aground is less of an issue.  And have something light that bounces rather than being self-destructively heavy.  And all the time that I'm not running aground (or being crushed in the ice) I will be sailing something built out of a material that is pleasant and easy to maintain or alter, and intrinsically beautiful.