This article was originally published on SailNet in January 2001.
Is your nav station a well-equipped, adeptly organized place from which to safely plot your course, or are things always sliding around and you can never even find a pencil?
When driving a car it's easy to see what lies ahead and steer your vehicle accordingly as you ramble along. But in a sailboat, with its protruding keel and rudder, we don't often have that luxury. In all but the very clearest of waters, what lies below, and whether we can take our boat there, must be determined by studying charts and carefully plotting a course. Your nav station is the important work-center where you assimilate all the information available to you and plot a safe course to your destination. Setting up your nav station in a logical and functional manner before you cast off will ensure that your time spent seated here is both comfortable and productive.
The navigator not only plots a course prior to departure, but also needs to routinely update the ship's position while underway, sometimes in a rolling and pitching sea. Keeping this in mind, the tools and equipment used by the navigator must be securely stored, yet readily available when needed. Electronic items such as chart plotters and radios should be positioned and mounted in a manner that allows easy operation and access to the wiring behind the units. In order to best use the above tools and equipment, proper lighting for specific navigating tasks is essential.
Every sailor should have certain basic navigational tools on board. They would include such items as charts, parallel rules, course plotter, dividers, pencils, a pencil sharpener, and reference books. These all need to be within easy reach of your seated position. Fortunately, many nav stations have an opening desk in which you can store the tools needed for your chart plotting. The opening lid should have a spring or other type of lifter to hold the lid up and leave your hands free for other tasks. The surface of the desk itself should have a fiddle around the outside edges. These fiddles are really just raised pieces of molding that prevent items from sliding off your work surface. Nothing is more frustrating than having to hold on to your chart and your tools while struggling to plot your course. A rubber or vinyl mat, or even an inkblotter pad placed on your desk surface can help stop stuff from shifting around while also protecting the underlying wood from the damage a sharp-ended divider can cause.
A pen and pencil holder permanently affixed to the back of the desk or to the bulkhead nearby can be a very convenient addition. This type of holder is easy to make. Drill holes into a one-inch strip of teak, and then mount it in your chosen spot. This will prevent you from having to open the desktop to obtain a pen or pencil when you have charts and guidebooks scattered on top.
Not all nav stations are created equal in terms of the storage space provided by the builder. It's often necessary to be creative and find the necessary storage space yourself. Look for dead space above or below your worktable. Add a shelf for reference books or build in a box for your tools. As a last resort, inexpensive plastic storage boxes, sometimes permanently mounted, can be used to keep all your tools in one convenient location.
Many sailors today have quite an array of electronics and radios they wish to include at their nav station. When choosing where these should be mounted, it's important to analyze just how each device is operated and which will be used most often. Instruments that require prolonged user input should be mounted in such a manner that allows the navigator to rest his or her elbow on the desk while operating the equipment so that extended usage will not become tiring. Chart plotters require detailed waypoint data input and SSB or Ham radios require the frequent switching of channels and tweaking of settings, making them two examples of instruments that should be given priority when choosing a location.
When mounting your instruments, you'll want to ensure easy access to the wiring behind each to facilitate troubleshooting in the future. If you mount each instrument individually with the brackets provided, you'll have access to the wiring, but you'll also probably end up with a hodgepodge appearance with wires showing everywhere. By flush mounting your instruments in a hinged panel, you can achieve easy access when needed, and a clean professional look that hides the unsightly wires and actually enhances your boat's interior appearance.
Many sailors today use laptop computers to aid their navigation. If you're one of these people, you must ensure that it can be fastened down securely while underway. Unfortunately, laptops don't come with mounting brackets, nor are you likely to want to mount one permanently, so you'll want to devise your own method to keep it from moving about. We prefer to use our computer for the planning of a trip, but not depend on it while underway. We've experienced too many computer failures in simple programs like word processing to rely on this instrument for our safe passage. To power your computer, or other portable electronics, the addition of a 12-volt and 110-volt outlet right at your nav station is also useful.
Good lighting is crucial at the nav station. Very often, the navigator is dealing with complicated charts with extremely fine print. One overlooked detail could easily spell disaster. A clean, bright halogen light mounted directly overhead is valuable for when the most light is required. A lamp on a flexible gooseneck, which can provide either white or red light, is necessary for nighttime sailing. The light emitted from a red lens allows you to read your chart at night, but it doesn't destroy your night vision once you return to the cockpit. At least one flashlight should be kept hanging or clipped at the nav station. A red lens is also useful on a flashlight for overnight sailing. This can be easily achieved by placing a piece of red plastic film (the type designed to repair automobile taillights temporarily) over the lens of the flashlight.
There are a couple of small additions that can be beneficial during periods of rough weather or other extenuating circumstances. A set of headphones added to your nav station equipment can be availing for several reasons. There are conditions in which it is sometimes very difficult to hear your SSB, HAM, or VHF radio. It could be the noise from your engine, or maybe the wind and seas are making their own din that drowns out your ability to hear. In either case, a set of headphones will isolate you from the other disturbances, allow you to best hear important weather broadcasts, and communicate in otherwise impossible circumstances. Headphones are also appreciated by others in the boat when only one person wants to listen to the radio. Secondly, a seat belt installed at the nav station will hold the navigator securely in place so that he or she can accomplish his or her duties regardless of the conditions.
Finally, a good rule to adopt regarding nav station protocol is to never open the port directly above the nav station—ever. You may forget to close it again, and rain or seawater could damage many thousands of dollars worth of equipment. Your paper chart won't like it much either.
Although sailing is often romanticized as an aimless wandering about of the oceans, the truth is that sailors must carefully plan the routes they take. One small mistake in judgement, or one marker overlooked could quickly stick you in the mud or strew you on a reef. With a well-thought-out nav station you can sit comfortably in all weather, assimilate the necessary information that's at your fingertips, and safely guide your vessel and crew to any port around the world.
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SailNet Store Section: Chart Tools and Accessories