When I started sailing we had a compass and a VHF. Then we bought a depth sounder and speed indicator. We could now avoid slowly shallowing waters and we'd know exactly how fast we were going when we hit that thing while in the dense fog.
One time we left Green Bay and planned a stop at Beaver Island. We set our compass direction to hit the center of Beaver Island, an island about 13 miles long. Smartypants me decided to aim for the south end so we could then turn north towards St. James Harbor. You know, to save some time.
Once we were out on the water, a dense fog enveloped us. I could barely see the bow. It was so dense whatever part of my hair that was exposed to the elements was soon soaked. And it was cold, 55 degrees. A weather forecast onshore said it was 95.
I heard fog horns and imagined tankers or freighters all around us. My eyes were almost popping out of my head as I strained to try to make something out of the fog soup all around us. My ears were tuned to rippling waters and any sign at all we were nearing another vessel. I was on edge the whole time.
After over 12 hours I knew we missed the island. Just as it was starting to get dark I saw the Michigan bluffs, not more than 1/4 mile ahead. I had no idea where we were. If we went north and Traverse Bay was to our south, our next harbor was Mackinac Island and there was some treacherous shoals that lay before us that we'd have to navigate in the dark with only a compass.
My dad said, "Aim there" and pointed us south. After a discussion about how he knew that was the right way, I gave in. Within about an hour we were entering Traverse Bay. It was dark by then. I knew Little Traverse Bay and I knew how to get to Little Harbor and with the lifting fog and lights from all around, we made it safely.
At least twice more we had fog incidents, still having only the compass to guide us. I had by then completed two Power Squadron courses and a course in celestial navigation, but wasn't at all confident in my ability to locate us any closer than a mile from where we may be.
Then we got a LORAN. Our first trip was from Chicago to Saugatuck, MI. He hit the mouth of the harbor dead on. I was sold! The sextant became a museum piece and was only taken out of the wooden box to show friends how "they used to do it in the olden days". Then I would talk of how difficult it was to actually know where you were and pointed to that white box and say, "That will tell you exactly!"
That was over 30 years ago.
I can see how easy it is to rely on all the electronics available to us today and feel comfortable you know what you're doing. Navigational aids that will tell you exactly where you are. Sounders that map the bottom all around you. Up to the minute weather information coupled with computer models that can actually accurately predict what the weather will do. And when all else goes wrong emergency positioning locator beacons that many believe will bring a helicopter to save them within a few hours.
It's easy to become complacent.
But boats aren't made as well as they used to be. The need for speed has reduced the seaworthiness of many sailing vessels. Many buy boats for their interiors and their price without knowing what a bluewater boat is or without ever having been caught in a gale or a squall. And advertisers aren't going to bring that up in conversation unless they are selling a bluewater boat.
Imagine mandatory certifications for anyone who takes the helm of a boat. There would be a lot of screaming. Things won't change until something massively tragic happens. But with the sailing/boating community representing such a small percentage of the population, I don't see even a great tragedy creating changes.