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Boating Navigation Basics

How to navigate safely without electronics.

January 7, 2016
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Without electronics, do you really know how to find your way at sea? Tim Bower

Most of you don’t carry paper charts and depend solely on electronics. I think that’s dumb, but we all choose to withdraw from reality in our own way. So good on you, mate. However, even with a chart plotter you can still get lost, or at least disoriented. You press the zoom-in button and lose the big picture, or you zoom-out and lose the details of what’s around you. No matter how high-tech things get, you still need a sense of direction — and that can be a real problem.

While I’d love to tell you that hidden down deep within us we have an innate ability to find our way, it is not so. There was a glimmer of hope back in 1905 when Emile Jarvis studied how blind people got around. He noticed that the loss of one sense seemed to bring out a completely new one, from which he coined the term “sixth sense.”

Too bad he was wrong. Blind people find their way by becoming more attuned to their surroundings using the senses they already have, not by developing a new one. And that is the real sixth sense. For boaters, all you have to do is literally watch where you’re going. Be observant, stay aware of your surroundings, and keep track of where you are.

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Women have a head start as they tend to navigate by landmarks, using what they see and hear. Returning to a friend’s house she’ll turn left at the faded-blue building and right at the park with squeaky swings. Unfortunately, the need for landmarks may also be why women have trouble reading maps, as they don’t intuitively relate to distance and direction (cartography’s defining parameters).

Most men have no issues with maps, depending on their sense of time and motion (which defines distance and direction). To get to that same house his internal clock will tell him to drive for three minutes, turn left, go a short distance at 40 mph and turn right. Since men don’t always keep track of external signs, they often don’t realize (or admit) they’re lost.

If you can, combine both techniques. Then add one more thing to the mix — use points of reference to the world around you other than yourself. Don’t say, “That lighthouse is to my left; the cliffs are behind me.” As you move through the world, the positions of these objects change in relation to you, so it’s easy to get confused and then lost. A better way is to look for constant references that never move and keep relating back to them. Think, “That lighthouse is to the north of me; cliffs to the east.”

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This ability to experience your environment from a geocentric perspective (your position relative to the world) rather than an egocentric perspective (the world’s position relative to you) is a step in the right direction. There is the story of a boy whose parents gave him directions using only the points of the compass, rather than the more usual “to your left” or “to your right.” They would say, “Get the brush on the north (instead of right) side of the dresser.” From this the boy learned to think of himself as moving within the world and not the world moving around him, and in that way he always remained oriented. Like the boy, as long as you can stay aligned with some external reference it will be easier to keep track of where you are.

No, we humans are not endowed with an innate sense of direction. But you can keep from getting lost by being a keen observer of what’s around you, keeping track of direction and distance covered, and looking for permanent points of reference. If you practice this whenever you can, I bet the next time I see you outside the inlet you’ll have found that lost sense of direction.

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