Navigation in practice (EPs)

James CloseJames, Tips & Tricks, Video, YouTube

Navigation when taught in the class room is all about accuracy and attention to detail, and quite rightly so, in order to prove that you understand the concepts. However I see students struggling to make the transition from classroom to chart table on a bouncing yacht, it is a bit of a culture shock.

I learnt to navigate on board yachts, and only later visited the class rooms to refine the techniques, here I will show you how I tackle navigating whilst tacking in the confines of the Solent. Time is of the essence, as at 6 knots you can cross from one side of the Solent to the other in about 10 minutes, if it takes you 5 minutes to do the navigation at the chart table you are going to be half way across by the time you pop your head up on deck and find you are in the middle of the shipping channel.

This video assumes you have already grasped the idea of the navigation techniques in the class room and intends to show you my approach when confronted with the realities of navigating on yachts in the Solent….

Chart work accuracy is very important when you are sailing long distances, away from the sight of land, and in these situations you have the luxury of space around you to take your time, but when you are close to shore, you are much better navigating with your eye balls on deck than being stuck down below. When close to shore you should be popping down briefly, just to confirm you are where you think you are, and that you are not heading towards danger. The chart is an aid to your safe passage, you should have lines on the chart at all times that are depicting where you should be going, and keep checking with fixes that you are fairly close to being on your lines. But it is just brief checks, 95% of your time should be on deck keeping a look out, safely negotiating the traffic, making sure your crew are happy and safe and trimming those sails. Being down below too long when you are the skipper is frankly dangerous.

Chart work navigation is based on estimates. The boat speed through the water is not constant, the log may be slightly out, the wind is up and down, changing direction, the helm may be all over the place and the tide flows are estimates and can be effected by wind and atmospheric conditions, so we are on the back foot right from the start. However accepting you have to take all these figures with a pinch of salt, it is surprising how accurate you can still be. In the Solent I aim to know where I am on the chart at all times within the space of a finger print, and timings to an accuracy of 5 mins. These estimated figures can achieve this level of accuracy very easily, and you can afford to speed up your plotting of these numbers. Don’t spend too long agonising over one degree here of there, is the chart plotter perfectly parallel? Have I measured precisely 5.76 NM? As an exercise just try to dial the bearings in quickly first time, practice using your dividers as fast as possible. Draw your lines on the chart boldly and clearly, use a scale that keeps the diagrams nice and big, and clear for anyone to follow.

You will be surprised that with practice, your accuracy will naturally return as you become more skilled at using the dividers and chart plotter. It is very satisfying when you end up where you said you were going to be, you can enjoy the sailing, knowing exactly where you are. Spending less time down below is a good way to manage possible seasickness, and knowing that navigating isn’t a long winded chore, you will be keener to keep on top of plotting your courses. The trick is to take what you see on the chart and recognise it when looking about on deck. The more time on deck, the easier it is to get your bearings. I like to have a hand bearing compass with me to take a bearing of the ground track and see if a land mark tallies with the chart. Once you have a confirmed point on the land to aim for you know exactly where you are, you feel safe and can enjoy the sailing.