CAPTAINS LOG | SEPTEMBER 2011

LIFE WITHOUT GPS • Last July, word went out through the blogosphere, including our own Cruising Compass (www.cruisingcompass.com), that the FCC was considering licensing broadcast frequencies close enough to the frequencies used by the Global Positioning System to potentially degrade the GPS signals that millions of people rely upon every day. For cruisers, the loss of GPS could be a serious problem that would render our chartplotters and handheld units useless. The FCC gave 30 days for comment, which ended July 30th. For more information on this regrettable process, visit the site for Save Our GPS at www.saveourgps.org.

As it happened, I had just gotten back from a week of cruising around the islands of southern New England aboard our 45-foot sloop without the aid of GPS or chartplotter—the first time we’d cruised coastally without these digital aids in many years. We had a few days of hazy weather, but thankfully no dense fog.
Still, navigating even these familiar waters without the tools we were used to was a different experience that required more planning, vigilance and time at the chart table. Out came the paper charts, the parallel rules, the dividers and the hand bearing compass…all tools we always carry but never use.

Frankly, even though we have sailed one-and-a-half times around the world, we were a little rusty when it came to dead reckoning and old school navigation. Did we have to add variation to the true course or subtract it? It took a moment to remember that “east is least and west is best.”

One blustery afternoon, we were running downwind in a smoky sou’wester against a strong ebbing tide and towing the dinghy when we determined it would be prudent to seek shelter in a deep cove ahead. Visions of a flipped dinghy danced in our heads. But where was the cove in all that dense haze?

We closed on the coast and took a couple of bearings on known headlands, then fixed a pencil position on the chart. Okay. Now we figured that we had 2 knots of current pushing us sideways while we were making a bit of leeway in the other direction as we reached across the breeze. Umm. With the parallel rules, we shaped a straight course, then did a little time-on-distance math, came up with a rough vector to steer and plotted that course on the chart. By the way, this was a virgin chart unmarked by pencils or even human hands.

We steered the calculated course, and in roughly the time predicted, the headland we were looking for emerged from the haze. We found the little white lighthouse slightly hidden behind it and sailed into the lovely calm water in the protected cove where we dropped the hook. And then we let out a sigh of relief. We hadn’t done that in a while.

The good news is that we remember how to navigate the old fashioned way. The bad news is that we can’t wait until the GPS gets back from the shop! And, yes, we have voiced our concern to the FCC about GPS’s future through the Save Our GPS website. I hope you will, too.

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