I recently acquired a 30-year-old project boat whose systems are mostly original, except for the electronics, which had been updated in the early 1990s—the Jurassic era as far as modern electronics are concerned. In fact, I well recall installing that selfsame make of instrument on the boat I owned back then, and marveling at how wonderful it was to have a digital depth readout instead of a whirring dial and a couple of flashing lights to warn of impending collision with the sea bed.
This presented me with the rare opportunity to specify a new instrument and nav system from scratch. You would think that, having absorbed the last few generations of instrument and navigational technology almost by osmosis via the magazine’s electronics coverage, I would have enjoyed this. Marine electronics have reached a pinnacle of sophistication and functionality no one could have dreamed of back in the days when I and thousands of other sailors tiptoed cautiously along coastlines, squinting over our hand-bearing compasses, marking cocked hats on the chart and working out set and drift on graph paper. Somehow, though, I couldn’t get excited about the prospect, not in the way that I can spend hours poring over sail options or dreaming up the ideal ground tackle setup.
I spent some time musing over this during a long solo passage last spring, lolling in the cockpit while the autopilot steered, the AIS kept an eye out for shipping, the plotter at the helm admonished me silently for my cross-track error, the depth instrument showed a wholesome hundred feet below the keel, the GRIB app on my phone gave me a snapshot of the winds that lay ahead, and the chartplotting app on my iPad told me I was unlikely to carry the tide though the Cape Cod Canal unless I picked up my average speed by half a knot. If I fell overboard I’d trigger the personal locator and AIS alarm beacons clipped to my lifejacket, and let out a plaintive cry for help via the handheld VHF in my jacket pocket.
Down below, tucked away in a pilot berth, was an eight-inch-high stack of paper charts and pilot books covering the entire Eastern seaboard that I’d borrowed for the trip south the previous year, and not opened—not even once. I used medium-scale NOAA charts for passage planning and then, despite my best intentions to go paper all the way, I defaulted to the iPad and plotter, in that order. Laziness? Perhaps. I prefer to think of it as the benefits of years of experience. The iPad could fall overboard, the plotter could blow a microprocessor, the entire GPS system could go on the fritz and I’d dredge up all those old memories, break out the hand-bearing compass and the plotting tools and my eight inches of charts and be none the worse for the experience, just a hell of a lot more alert.
I’m no Luddite, and I don’t want to turn back the clock. In terms of safety and positional awareness, we sailors have never had it so good. In terms of situational awareness, well, technology can lull us into a sense of security that can be dangerously false. If I miss anything about the pre-GPS days, it’s the dry-mouthed excitement of approaching a strange shoreline, eyes straining for the marks, pilot book in hand, hoping you gauged the tide right, and the sense of relief and accomplishment when you realized you were where you wanted to be and not where you were afraid you’d end up.
Admittedly, it was a feeling often best savored in retrospect. I’m looking forward to installing the new plotter and instruments, and I’m sure I’ll find something else to be nervous about. It’s good for you.