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Seamanship & Navigation Forum devoted to seamanship and navigation topics, including paper and electronic charting tools.


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Old 01-23-2011
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A few thoughts on electronics & keeping watch

Recently the proud new skipper of a shiny new catamaran was showing me all his electronic toys. I must admit he had left little on the shelves of his local electronics store. There were two of just about everything from big plotters to radars. In his joy of ownership he commented that he and his wife would lead a “normal“ life inside while the electronics GPS and autopilot steered the boat and the radars kept watch for them. I didn‘t say much remembering old Capt. Irving‘s saying that,“every skipper has his own compass “,but inside I though “this man is a danger to himself, his family, and everyone else at sea.

Chart plotters and GPS mark a position to within a few meters. The problem is in understanding what those fancy gadgets are telling you. First of all GPS is very good at telling you exactly and precisely where it thinks you are and chart plotters are only as good as the charts they are based upon. Many of the charts for the areas where we go were done in the 1800‘s and have been little updated since then. For example when we are moored stern to at Banda Neira the chart plotter shows us to be exactly. 49 Nm S.E. of where we should be, or right in the middle of the town Mosque other islands are up to 3 Nm off. Try depending on the chart plotter/GPS to enter there and you will soon be hard aground - or wondering where the island went. Remember nothing replaces the old mk-1 eye-ball and common sense. Being honest with yourself, do you have a functional back up plan to navigate safely should all your electronics fail?

The other problem is that of watches. Watches are called watches because that means someone is out there WATCHING out for other boats, fishnets, thunderstorms, lost shipping containers, and all the other things that pop up. The reason you can sleep peacefully when off watch is that you know someone else is ON WATCH. I once saw first hand the results of not keeping a proper watch when an oil tanker pulled into the port of Dakar with the complete mast and rigging from about a 45‘ sailboat hanging from their port side anchor. They were not even aware they had hit something. And bye the way, I have many times seen a wooden or plastic fishing boat with my eyes when the radar could not see it at all.
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Old 01-23-2011
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With you there, HV! We've experienced the same in Mexico.... routinely anchored a mile or two inshore according to the plotter...

These are great tools (I do think they are more than 'toys'...) but no substitute for common sense and vigilance.
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Old 01-23-2011
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Nicely said HVVega.

You might want to tell the owner of that fancy boat to buy the recent book, Black Wave, that came out last year IIRC was about a family that was cruising on a large catamaran and the boat went aground while no one was on watch. The Silverwoods are damn lucky to have survived. Plenty of discussion on that particular stupidity over at Cruiser's Forum.

From the book as found in one of the posts there:

Quote:
"John took a GPS reading, looked at his chart and concluded they were about seven miles from Manuae. He set the sails and the autopilot for a path he believed would keep them well clear of the island.

They sat down to dinner but were interrupted by a noise. A pin that connects the boom to the main sail had broken. They worked on it for more than an hour before lowering the main and tying the boom in place. John figured he would repair it in the morning, in daylight.

As night settled in, and the kids gathered in the main salon to watch "Drop Dead Gorgeous," Jean went to a stateroom to watch "The Road to Perdition" on a laptop computer. She was worried the boat problems would make them late to Fiji. Friends were flying in to meet them there.

John came down and told her they would get to Fiji on schedule. He had the jib up and the engines running. It was about 7 p.m.

Then they heard scraping on the bottom of the boat."
This is a 55' catamaran... and they were about seven miles from an atoll. A 55' catamaran can cover seven miles in well under an hour in most conditions...less than 20 minutes in many cases, yet the idiots decided to go down below and watch movies?

BTW, the atoll, Manuae in western French Polynesia, the idiots ran aground on looks like this:



It is also a fairly well known hazard, and why they didn't plot a course that took them a safe distance away from it is beyond me. This is especially true given the age of the charts in the region. I try to stay at least a couple miles off of well known and marked hazards if possible-and this does not qualify as well-marked. I would give a mostly submerged atoll a very wide berth at night, say 30 miles or so, and kept a watch when reaching the point of closest approach.

While radar and such is nice to have, it can't make the boat change course when something unexpected pops up, and a lot of stuff just doesn't show up on radar at all. Also, on a night watch, you can often hear things before you can see them.
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Last edited by sailingdog; 01-23-2011 at 07:25 AM.
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I think it is one of those lost arts called Seamanship. You can buy a boat and all the toys but seamanship only comes from learning and experience. It is not something you can buy. I would not even dream of leaving the boat sailing un-attended. That is just plain stupid. Then again seem to be a lot of people on the water these days who think a wallet or CC card can substitute for seamanship. I have a few more things on the subject on our blog at sailvega | 118 year old sailing vessel for humanitarian relief you might find interesting. In any case telling the fellow with his new cat that he needs to learn a bit before setting out would just not work... on the other hand maybe Darwin was right after all and that is what cats are for, says he laughing.
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HVVega—

Please don't blame the boat for the failings of the captain and crew. If they had been doing the same thing in a monohull, chances are far more likely that they would have died instead of merely having one person lose his leg.

Yes, I agree that the lack of seamanship is the issue, and that Darwin's theories are still very much the rule on the high seas.

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Originally Posted by HVVega View Post
I think it is one of those lost arts called Seamanship. You can buy a boat and all the toys but seamanship only comes from learning and experience. It is not something you can buy. I would not even dream of leaving the boat sailing un-attended. That is just plain stupid. Then again seem to be a lot of people on the water these days who think a wallet or CC card can substitute for seamanship. I have a few more things on the subject on our blog at sailvega | 118 year old sailing vessel for humanitarian relief you might find interesting. In any case telling the fellow with his new cat that he needs to learn a bit before setting out would just not work... on the other hand maybe Darwin was right after all and that is what cats are for, says he laughing.
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her going when she oughta fall down, tells you she's hurting 'fore she keens. Makes her a home.

—Cpt. Mal Reynolds, Serenity (edited)

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I don't exactly know how fast a tanker can go, but base on some 30ish year old books I read, from the time a tanker pops up on the horizon, it takes about 12 minutes to reach you(if your not moving)... Now if you add the incredible speed of a catamaran or a trimaran, lets say 10 to 15kts, I can ensure you that if your on a head to head collision course it doesn't take long before you collide...If your wachting a movie or doing anything else down in the cabin, by the time you hear your radar's alarm, you might not have the time to put on your fowl weather gear and get in the cockpit... I would defenetly want to have some one already in the cockpit ,keeping a good lookout.
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Old 01-23-2011
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Quote:
Originally Posted by PeterSailer View Post
I don't exactly know how fast a tanker can go, but base on some 30ish year old books I read, from the time a tanker pops up on the horizon, it takes about 12 minutes to reach you(if your not moving)... Now if you add the incredible speed of a catamaran or a trimaran, lets say 10 to 15kts, I can ensure you that if your on a head to head collision course it doesn't take long before you collide...If your wachting a movie or doing anything else down in the cabin, by the time you hear your radar's alarm, you might not have the time to put on your fowl weather gear and get in the cockpit... I would defenetly want to have some one already in the cockpit ,keeping a good lookout.
Cross posted from Cruisers' Forum:

As I commented in this thread:

Reader's Digest Story of the s/v 'Emerald Jane' - Cruisers & Sailing Forums

this book made me quite annoyed. Like howling in exasperation and chucking it across the room annoyed. I only recommend it to people who enjoy the sight of head-on crashes with drunken driving as the cause. It inspired me to always keep a deck watch...so I can avoid auto-piloted boats in the loosely charted South Pacific who pick sunset as a good time for everyone to go below and watch a movie.

These people lived IN SPITE of what happened to them. I finished this book two weeks ago, and my feelings have hardened even more, and I found the whole "drama" aspect to be written with an eye to securing a movie deal. Also, as an aside, prayer is no substitute for seamanship.

Seamanship used to mean keeping watch and keeping plots, DR and running fixes. Hint: IT STILL DOES. The fact that we have electronic aids to perform and keep track of many of these tasks...allegedly to a higher degree of accuracy...does not excuse us from the task of interpreting and evaluating that data on an ongoing basis. That means "Hmm...I am supposed to be seven miles off a reef. Why do I hear surf and see spray a quarter-mile ahead? Does not compute. Better heave to/turn 90 degrees/turn 180 degrees/call all hands on deck".

It does NOT mean "let's watch trailers for upcoming Pixar releases and make popcorn!"

One sincerely wonders why some people go to sea in the first place if all they want to do is to reproduce suburban rec rooms.
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One sincerely wonders why some people go to sea in the first place if all they want to do is to reproduce suburban rec rooms.
Amen to that!!
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The oil tanker in Dakar was apparently keeping just as good a watch as your two-hulled friend intends to, and, unfortunately, just as good a watch as the 45' sailboat seems to have been . Darwinism is tough, but can be effective. I sleep better knowing one of my crewmates is on watch for all of us.
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Quote:
Originally Posted by paulk View Post
The oil tanker in Dakar was apparently keeping just as good a watch as your two-hulled friend intends to, and, unfortunately, just as good a watch as the 45' sailboat seems to have been . Darwinism is tough, but can be effective. I sleep better knowing one of my crewmates is on watch for all of us.
I am pretty sure that tanker was from Norway - if I remember rightly -and they are pretty serious sailors. They went into a panic when I showed them the mast and rig - no sails BTW - hanging from their anchor. I simply refuse to not have someone on watch when we are at sea or anchored in an unknown place the first few nights. In any case it is my job to insure that a proper watch is maintained at all times...besides I agree with you it helps one sleep better and live longer.
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