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Black Boxes

It’s easy to rely too much on today’s electronics suites. Keep your nav skills sharp: They may save your bacon.

Are you kidding me? ARE YOU KIDDING ME!

Pardon me for shouting, but I’ve just read what is arguably the worst maritime advice since Capt. Edward Smith of the Titanic told his first officer, “Ah, don’t worry, they’re just big ice cubes. Maintain full speed,” before retiring to his cabin. And we all know how that turned out. Leonardo DiCaprio died.

One of the largest marine electronics manufacturers (who shall remain nameless) just sent around a press release titled, “What to Do if You Lose Your GPS Signal.”

Now that, in itself, is interesting because every electronics company touts the absolute reliability of its products. These companies promise you can tiptoe through skinny water, cruise through dense fogs and then sleep soundly at anchor when their products are on duty. That’s all fine, and we normally take manufacturer claims with a large grain of salt.

The point here is that the advice this company proceeds to give is so bad that I just saw my copy of Chapman’s Piloting & Seamanship turn itself around to face the wall. A truly epic fail.

Let’s look at these gems one by one.

“Use your other instruments.” OK, you still have depth, speed, compass and perhaps radar. And they also throw in, “Plus, of course, the most valuable instrument of all—your eyes.” Good tip. They also advise, “Avoid panic.” Another good tip.

“Slow down or even stop.” And then, they go into some mumbo jumbo that at 30 knots, you’re covering 3,000 feet a minute, but if you drop to 5 knots, it’s just 500 feet a minute. That advice alone is making me panic.

“Check for local interference or power loss.” They suggest that laptops or cheap LED lighting can cause interference, and advise boaters to “ensure all electrical connections are sound.” Good tip, and that’s the first question every computer or TV or refrigerator service tech asks: “Is it plugged in?”

“Ensure your GPS can see the sky.” It should help you smile (rather than panic) when they suggest that you check the GPS antenna to see if someone has “thrown a set of heavy coats or wet towels over it.” I don’t know who might have a full set of heavy coats on board, but those darn teenagers, always throwing wet towels on the electronics.

“Use alternative systems.” Ah, here we’re getting somewhere, or so I thought. They suggest that you try to pick up positioning signals from the Russian GLONASS or the European Galileo systems.

And that’s it. The closest thing to useful advice is, “Make a note of where you are” when the GPS went out.

On what? A matchbook cover? The Starbucks bag? There is not one single mention of the word “chart.”

I am outraged. A company that survives by telling people how to navigate safely doesn’t have a better suggestion than, “If you have a standby GPS, then check that out.” This is not quite the same as when your home TV goes out. When you’re in the gloom of night, you can’t just use the TV in another room.

Those of us of a certain age can remember when there was no GPS. We were aboard yachts that had something called a “chart table” with a “chart drawer” in which lived a selection of uncomfortably large charts covering everywhere we might possibly want to go.

We had radio direction finding. Being a Californian, I could find my way in fog by homing in on (or from) the KBIG radio tower on Catalina. But it was iffy.

And there was still some skill involved. You had to figure in speed and currents and depth to plot not just your location, but also your course. I will say with no modesty whatsoever that, in weather when birds were walking, I have safely navigated along inhospitable lee shores and reveled in the sight of an entrance buoy looming out of the fog or rain exactly where I expected it.

I, and many others like me, get a deep satisfaction from not being totally reliant on black boxes. Yes, they’re terrific, with charts and locations within a couple of feet, but it’s like a video game. Pushing a button is easy, but so what?

This electronics company is absolutely right when it predicts that black boxes will literally go black. So, I’ll keep my nav skills intact: I’ll practice basic navigation and, on trips out of sight of land, keep a running plot with a thin pencil line on a chart and little X marks at regular intervals. I find it quite interesting (and educational) to see how much (or how little) my own plots have varied from reality. Since I’m now in Florida, the Gulf Stream gives me plenty of opportunity to learn about currents.

Charts are neither easy nor particularly practical to store. I invested in an architect’s flat file for my office because I never know when I might need that chart of the Isle of Skye in Scotland or Phang-Nga Bay in Thailand. But just keeping a compact chart book of your home waters aboard (and knowing how to use it) can save your cookies when those monitors flicker and go out.

Trust me on this one: The best charts are not on your screen. 

This article was originally published in the April 2022 issue.