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December 2006

Navigation Warning
A few months ago I read an article about the helpfulness of cruisers who came to the rescue of a couple who had become stranded on a reef in the western Pacific. Their thanks were heart-felt, their good fortune at having other cruisers within a day's sail of their disaster was amazing. Still they lost the boat and many personal possessions and years of preparation.

Almost hidden at the end of the story was an even more amazing fact, the reason they had sailed downwind onto the semi-submerged reef. Like a large number of sailors today, their boat was equipped with not only electronic charts, but a GPS, chart plotter and the like. They had put the waypoints for their destination into the computer and set the auto-steering gear to this course. Their normal practice had been to back up the electronic positioning by plotting their position on a paper chart every twelve hours. They hit the reef ten hours after plotting their previous position. The culprit? The course plotted by their computerized gear was directly across the reef. Their warning to others - plot your position every six hours. But what about a more important warning - have paper charts on board, study what lies ahead for the next several hundred miles, then lay out a course. With currents often changing direction, speeding up or slowing down around sheer sided reefs, why not plan a course that gives you fifty or a hundred miles clearance. If you do this several hundred miles before the obstacle it might add only a dozen miles to your voyage. Remember, just-submerged reefs may not give any return at all on radar and with even a fifteen or twenty knot breeze stirring up the seas.


For a quick fix in island studded waters
When we were racing against two other friends inside the reef surrounding Huahine and Tahaa, we came up with a simple solution for keeping track of our position with a quick glance at the chart. The best charts of the area still appeared to be a clutter of coral heads and maze of possible routes. Even though we have a plastic chart case that lets us keep the chart right next to us in the cockpit, we were doing a lot of short tacking, I was in and out of the cockpit doing sail adjustments. So I found I often lost track of where exactly we were on the chart and had to spend a few seconds each time re-orienting myself. Since we were being "competitive" I didn't want to miss any possible chances so one of us came up with the idea of cutting out a boat-shaped icon from the sticky part of a piece of post-it paper. Each time we tacked, we'd paste the tiny boat on our position, pointed along our new course. It worked a treat. It was even more useful when we were sailing through the rocky passages of the Outer Hebrides and Norway where there were often half a dozen possible routes through the islands which all looked very much alike, and few really distinctive landmarks to help with orientation.

The pictures here were taken when we used this paper post-it boat among the islands of the Pacific Northwest.


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