Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Cautionary Tale

A couple weeks ago the flood tide that would lift Saga north from Anacortes, Washington to Sucia Island near the Canadian border, started mid-afternoon. The boat was rigged, provisioned and ready to go that morning. The only thing unaccounted for was the compass. Couldn't be found anywhere.

No big deal, these are protected waters where land is always visible and the route well known. Anxious to get underway, we set off. The tide would be against the little boat for the next four to five hours, but after a gentle push west out of Guemes Channel on the ebb, the idea was to sail leisurely at the south end of Bellingham Channel until the flood, then ride the afternoon tide all the way to Sucia Island.

All was well. The day was bright and beautiful. The wind was a bit light and the current steady, so very little forward progress was made all morning. Just to the west a pretty band of fog drifted in off the Strait of Juan de Fuca and along the coast of Cypress Island. Saga was behaving well and making probably two or three knots over the water, yet none over the ground. In fact the set was a bit to the west, which caused no particular concern, it was good to just be sailing.

The fog on the western shore had dissipated as the sun reached it's zenith, so imagine my surprise when Saga was suddenly engulfed in mist. Habitually, I looked for the compass which, as we already know, was no where to be found. Cursing my ill fortune, I watched the peaks on Cypress Island disappear as the sun turned to a diffuse milky haze. The regular rhythm of a light fetch was all the directional indication left.  
Saga held her course.

Directly behind me, I heard the toll of a navigational horn on a big ship. I must be drifting south, back into Guemes Channel!

Panic is deadly and must be avoided at all costs. File through all the options. Strike the sails and get the motor going. But then what? No worries, there is a compass function on the GPS. Now some of you may laugh because you know Doryman doesn't use a GPS very often, he depends on his charts and his COMPASS.

The compass function was not hard to find but it took me a few minutes to discover the gadget had to be oriented along the centerline of the boat to give an accurate reading. It didn't help that this little hand held toy has a turtle shell shaped back and will not lay flat on a seat or thwart.

It does no good to have plenty of fuel and a dependable engine if you have no idea where you are or where you're going. The horn on my stern was much louder by now and it was time to get the hell out of here. I flipped to the map function and panned out to get a bearing and imagine my surprise to see "Strait of Juan de Fuca" on the western margin of the tiny screen. The magnitude of my dilemma just set in. I was possibly in the shipping lane for Guemes Channel, and even more disconcerting, might be very near the much more heavily trafficked Rosario Strait. The horn from that freighter was very loud, very close.

This story might have a different ending if the fog had not lifted at that moment. The stark reality was apparent in the mid-afternoon sun. I had indeed drifted southwest into Rosario Strait and was close to three miles from where I'd last taken a visual bearing.
I never saw the freighter. (and I'm sure they never saw me.)

As I motored back into position, the tide turned and the trip north began. The rest of the day was by turns easy and exciting. Around the east side and up the north end of Cypress Island, Saga again entered the wind tunnel that is Rosario Strait. With all sail set, the motor pushing at an idle and the tide at her back, Saga clocked a top speed of 7.2 knots on a port broad reach toward Orcas Island. Not bad for an eighteen foot boat.

Soon Sucia Island was in sight. The first task, after setting anchor and before dinner, is to find that compass!

To be continued...


Joel Bergen said...


First, let me say that Navigatorjoel has the utmost respect and admiration for Doryman, or anyone else who navigates by compass and chart. But (and I ask this with all due respect), when lost in a fog, currents are moving you one direction, winds another, you don't know where you are, and you can't see land, how useful, really, are charts at that point? Or even a compass?

Navigatorjoel relies heavily on a hand-held Garmin GPS loaded with Bluechart marine charts. He always knows precisely where he is, where he's going, and when he'll get there. He knows where every submerged rock is, how deep the water is, what the tide level is and what the speed and direction of the currents are. He even knows where the nearest marina with beer is, and precisely how long the beer run will take.

Aha! But what if that fancy GPS fails? Well, that's why He carries another Garmin GPS as a backup, and a large pack of new batteries.

I do carry a set of paper charts and a hand-bearing compass onboard for use as a backup to my backup GPS, but I urge Doryman, for his own safety, to use his GPS more often.

doryman said...

Yes, the GPS is a useful tool, though in this case AIS might have been more the ticket. I wasn't so much worried about where I was or even where land might be found but where was that huge ship?!
I crossed the Strait of Juan de Fuca on a boat with AIS once and it took a huge burden from navigational anxiety to know where those big guys are and how fast they are traveling in a fog.

Once or twice in the last few years I have confused an isthmus for an island or a bay for a channel and used the GPS to sort myself out but rarely do my navigational skills let me down.

In this case (or if you are caught out in the dark) taking a good look around to establish a mental picture of landmarks and distances, then taking a compass bearing (or maybe two) will provide you with a lot of information. It's really quite easy once you've trained yourself.

I find that the mental exercise of keeping track of deviations in my course by visual, auditory and other sensory methods is essential in inland waters. I've learned a lot about my place in the universe this way and am not keen on giving it up to a gadget that can't tell me which way north is unless I point it northward.

Joel, I hope you will forgive me - it's just the opposite on my ship. The charts and compass are my guide and the GPS spends most of it's time in a dry bag. Very few batteries required.

Bursledon Blogger said...

I'm with you Michael the GPS is great in that it provides an accurate and immediate position fix - but it's the translation of that position onto a chart that creates for me at least, the real understanding of my position, surroundings (no matter how distant). I know people who go from here to there following the chart plotter but I like to feel much more engaged in the route. In similar circumstances to Michael some years ago we had a rough idea of where we were as the fog came down suddenly, just as we were leaving the river mouth, we spent a heart stopping time sailing in the shallows to avoid the ferries but having no idea where we were, other than it being too shallow for the big boats to get us.

Joel Bergen said...

I understand your points, and agree with them. Have you looked at Garmin's Bluechart though? I've compared what Bluechart shows me on my GPS screen with my paper charts and the Bluechart charts are actually more detailed than my paper charts (although I admit my paper ones are quite old now). No doubt you guys are much better at it than I, but I never feel exactly sure where I am on my paper charts, and I hit a rock once near Jones Is using them because of that. I appreciate the Zen of using them, but I'm also glad to worry less about your safety, my friend, knowing you also have a GPS safely tucked away in case you really do need it.

doryman said...

When Kees Prins was here and we sailed in Yaquina Bay, he used a new GPS with Bluechart. It was amazing for showing detail, which I could readily confirm from experience. Even the best intuition could not provide a safer platform. Max and I come from a background of bigger boats where the rule is to stay in water many times deeper than your draft. I'm still cautious about entering shoals colored in blue on the chart (10 fathoms, which is more than enough). Of course, on a bigger boat there would be radar, a depth sounder and a Loran too.

Still, it's what you're comfortable with. In this age I would be very foolish to advocate against GPS technology. When I was first introduced to it, there was a scrambled deviation built in by the government and your position was dubious. Now it would be my intuition and best guess that would probably be in error, as we see from this experience.

There is a big difference between having tools that can measure the width of a hair and having none at all. The point of this story is how an experienced mariner can make a potentially fatal error by being too cavalier about preparation. I think the GPS that I have used are not appropriate to use for navigation and a newer, more detailed unit might be on the wish list. But I'll have to draw the line there. One battery sucking gizmo is enough.