The Official Magazine of the Bluewater Cruising Association

The Modern Navigator

Ken Gillstrom

Voyageur 10.10
45' Custom Aluminum
February 5th, 2015

Since the beginning of seafaring, travelers have used some method of helping them navigate to their destination and back home again. Vikings managed to cross the stormy North Atlantic. Polynesians successfully explored the Pacific and generations of fishermen have found their way with few, if any, aids to navigation. The techniques used by these seafarers differed, but they all had a keen sense of space and time, as well as their place in it. Their senses were tuned in to:

  •  location of sun and stars
  • colour of the water
  • cries of seabirds
  • direction of the wind
  • the speed they were making
  • feeling the waves reflecting off the land or the sound of crashing surf
Ocean sunset

Many new lands were discovered through sheer luck and good eye sight.

Yes, it all sounds very romantic . . . OKAY! A lot of the time they just shoved horseshoes up their a__, kept sailing until they bumped into something, and claimed the new lands found as their own. Maybe lucky! However, they did manage to navigate their way back – eventually.

The modern sailor is hunched over an electronic charting system which is mounted eye level at the binnacle, maneuvering the vessel as if they are playing a video game, rarely taking eyes off the chart plotter. I too, have found myself falling into this trance a few times, becoming unaware of my real surroundings. We watch as the little black icon passes land marks and buoys, sometimes oblivious to their actual location. We can tend to become complacent with all our modern electronics, leading to overconfidence in our navigation, cut corners, and take chances.

traditional helm

Traditional vessels had only a simple magnetic compass to guide the helmsperson.

There are dozens of examples of electronic navigation leading to disasters, including the destruction of vessels and loss of life. Most recently, in the Volvo Ocean Race, Vestas Wind ran up on a reef that was known to them. Unfortunately, they hadn’t zoomed in enough on the chart plotter and the reef remained invisible on it. It was the middle of the night, and the waves breaking on the reef weren’t apparent until it was too late. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries.

Another example was in 2009 when then 100’ racing machine Price-Waterhouse-Coopers sailed up on to the rocky coast of Flinders Islet at full speed. The vessel had a full time professional crew on board, two being killed in the grounding as the boat disintegrated in the pounding surf. The rest of the injured crew was able to walk on to the shore from the deck. The ensuing inquiry discovered the only method of navigation at the time was a chart plotter. They were also able to calculate that the probable error in GPS position caused by antennae angle, satellite position and chart error was a few hundred meters. That’s a far cry from the couple of meters accuracy we are lulled into believing that our GPS is always giving. How many of us actually read the disclaimer that comes up when we first turn on our GPS or Chartplotter before pressing the ACCEPT button?

Traditional methods may not be as accurate as modern GPS, but they are dependable when others fail.

Traditional methods may not be as accurate as modern GPS, but they are dependable when others fail.

I am not suggesting that we chuck our radar, GPS, and chart plotter. Many old navigators lost their boats and died when their sense of place failed them. They would have avoided peril, if only they had a $150 hand held GPS. Modern navigation equipment is a real asset, and I’d much rather have it onboard than not.

However, there must be a reasonable amalgamation of old and new tools. Use of traditional navigation techniques coupled with modern electronics, not only increases safety, but has the added benefit of keeping us more aware of what is around us. Isn’t this why we go cruising in the first place?

No matter what method is being used the navigator needs a complete understanding of the principles behind navigating. They should also use more than one navigational tool to ensure that data derived from each tool confirms what the other tool is telling them. Putting too much reliance on one tool, and not understanding its limitations will most certainly lead to disaster.

The modern navigator must use a combination of modern and traditional techniques to safely guide them to their destinations.

The modern navigator must use a combination of modern and traditional techniques to safely guide them to their destinations.

Join Ken Gillstrom for his day-long seminar on Electronic Navigation for Cruisers on March 7, 2015, at the Vancouver Island chapter of the Bluewater Cruising Association. He will review the gambit of electronic tools available, from a simple depth sounder to Forward Looking Sonar, RADAR, AIS, Autopilot, Electronic Charts and Plotters. He will cover the information that each tool can provide, how to use it, and the limitations of that information.


  1. Karl Marits says:

    Thanks for the article Ken. Will you be giving the Electronic Navigation seminar in Vancouver this year?

    1. Ken Gillstrom says:

      Hi Karl, I believe the education schedule in Vancouver is full for the spring. We may be able to fit it into the schedule next year.

  2. Jennifer Handley says:

    Ken, have you seen this tongue-in-cheek article with its very clear message about dependency on electronics?

  3. Gillian West says:

    Well said, Ken. So much reliance on electronics has long been a concern of mine.

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