The BINARY Files

Lost at Sea

Main Entry: nav·i·ga·tion
Pronunciation: "na-v&-'gA-sh&n
Function: noun
1 : the fine art of thinking you know where you are
- nav·i·ga·tion·al /-shn&l, -sh&-n&l/ adjective
- nav·i·ga·tion·al·ly adverb

Some concepts seem to be clearly obvious and fundamental to boating. The water must be deeper than the keel. The boat shouldn't leak. Sailboats need wind. Such facts seldom need to be stated.

The need to navigate accurately is certainly one of the fundamentals of boating, but navigation is often taken for granted by sailors. If you always sail in and out of the same harbor and you only sail when visibility is good, then you have reduced the navigational skills needed to the very barest of essentials. Don't run into any other boats; stay on the proper side of those red and green things, and you are golden. How many trips do you make like this? For most of us, more than 95% of our sailing outings require this absolute minimum of navigational skills.

I have always been aware of my personal inexperience as a navigator. Seldom have I ever been out of sight of my destination. And on the few occassions when my destination was out of sight, I had unmistakeable landmarks to use to identify it. It really doesn't get much easier.

But once I got a cruiser, I knew I would go miles from shore. The farther out I go, the greater the chances of being caught out when the weather deteriorates and visibility drops. Clearly, practice and preparation under good conditions would pay off later.

I started with the basics. How accurrate was my compass? On one of my early sailing trips, I sailed to a navigation buoy south of the West River, came about, and set a compass course for the next buoy north. I couldn't see the buoy, but if I sailed a true course, the buoy should eventually come into view. If my compass was accurate and I sailed a true course, the buoy would appear dead ahead.

Looking out ahead I could see the eastern end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It would make a great landmark to aim at instead of trying to steer by the compass. I consulted my chart and noticed to my dismay, that I should be pointed at the western end of the bridge, not the eastern end. I double-checked everything and there was no doubt - my compass was off by 15-17 degrees - on this heading. Who knew what it was like on any other?

I knew I should swing my compass and true it up, but I just never seemed to get around to it. And with the West River always in sight, there was little motivation to schedule a trip dedicated to compass correction.

Then one warm, summer afternoon, I headed out of the West River just as I had many other times. But as I approached the Bay, I could see haze out over the water - thick enough to obscure the eastern shore.

The wind was steady out of the south, so I could easily reach across to Bloody Point and back. It seemed like a good day to test out my ability to sail a compass course. But what of my dicey compass? Well, in theory all I had to do was sail across on one course and sail back on the reciprocal. Maybe I would bias my course a couple degrees to the south to allow for leeway, but otherwise this should be easy. Off I went.

It was truely a beautiful day on the Bay. Visibility was good enough that collisions weren't a concern, the sun was shining sufficiently to keep the world bright and cheery, and it was warm, but not too hot or humid. The wind held steady out of the south and Binary was making about five knots. I could even lash off the tiller and relax. Binary would head up, fall off, and then head up again. The cycle kept repeating and the average course was in keeping with the objective of the trip. After an hour or so, I decided that I was close enough to the eastern shore. I tacked back to the west and trimmed Binary up on course back to the West River.

Another hour passed and I began to see forms appearing off the port and starboard quarters, but nothing straight ahead. Could I have hit the mouth of the river dead center after sailing ten miles in the haze? I kept going and the forms began to take shape. A spit of land and some trees to the northwest and the same to the southwest. I had found the river.

Damn nice navigation, if I say so myself.

With a weather eye on the shores to make sure I stayed in the deep water, I kept easing into the river. I approached a motor boat bobbing near a navigation buoy. Something didn't seem right, but I couldn't put my finger on it.

The couple on the power boat hailed me as I got close. They wanted to know if this was the South River. I looked at the buoy - it was #4, and much too far out in the river to be West River 4. I consulted my charts and, much to my chagrin, it was exactly where it should be to be South River 4. After sailing ten miles in the haze by compass, I was about 2 ½ miles north of my intended destination.

Had I been Columbus's navigator, he would have discovered Greenland.

Oh well. I brought Binary hard up into the wind and headed southeast. It was as if every powerboat on the Bay was trying to get into the South River. Binary heeled over with the rail almost in the water, and blasted through the wakes that seemed to come from all directions at once. No matter how big the wake or awkward the angle, Binary rode through unruffled.

We soon cleared the mouth of the South River and made the run down to the West River in no time at all.

At work on Monday, I tracked down my friend Chris to see how he faired with his 25 ft power boat. He had crossed the Bay and headed back in the haze. Partway into the return trip, he sighted the dark shape of a land mass out ahead. Being easier to head towards a target than to follow the compass, he headed for land.

After about twenty minutes, he noticed that the waves were hitting his boat at a different angle than they had been earlier. He looked more closely at the "land mass" - it was a tug and a barge.

Eric White, 7 April 98

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