October 1, 2012

What Does a Sailor Need?

Okay—so the title is a bit of a misnomer, it should read what does an Oz based sailor need from Canada? But that seemed wordy. Really we lack for nothing here in Australia. A bit of searching through shops and on the internet and we can find everything we need for the boat. After all, many world-cruisers take off from these shores.

The problem is that often when you find the boat bit you need to pay for it with a wheel barrow of cash. Often the difference in price is just enough to give you a little wallet strain and you suck it up. But in the case of some stuff; weird things like zinc-anodes—the little (heavy!) chunks of sacrificial metal that keep a boat’s underwater metal bits from corroding away, and sailing blocks—the pulleys that allow ropes to run more freely on a boat the price is enough to cause shock.

Happily both are items that are much cheaper in Canada, but it turns out they are also items that when stowed in your carry-on they cause your hand luggage to be searched extensively by airport security. The reason they were in my carry-on is our checked bags were well over weight limit. And no—I hadn’t stocked up on cheap shoes (though I sort of wanted to), I was bringing back paper.

Our list of stuff to bring back was mainly focused on charts (well, we also had replacement parts for the pressure cooker, sanding disks, seals for the canning jars and a few books). But aside from those random items I brought back 75 lbs of paper charts—which actually only added up to charts for a portion of SE Asia and (unexpectedly) a region of the North Sea.

You might wonder why I would pay overweight fees for navigation materials that thanks to chart plotters have essentially gone the way of the dodo, or the sextant. Well, we tend to be late adopters. On our first cruise we only embraced that new-fangled GPS thing when it proved that our sextant using skills were going to take more than one rushed afternoon to perfect. The GPS, it turns out, was a keeper.

But technology often has this way of removing you from the activity you set out to engage in. Chart plotters are easy to use, convenient to have, save money, free up space and save weight (no need for 75 lbs of charts every time you visit a new region) -- but they also take away one more job on a sailboat.

We sail for a combination of the pure joy of it (setting the sails, handling the wheel, choosing a course...) and to get somewhere. And one of the aspects that makes sailing feel like sailing is the navigation. When you navigate with paper charts you're a lot more involved: keeping an eye on landmarks, plotting fixes, comparing what you see against where you are. With a chart plotter I find it easy to be lulled into navigation as video game. I watch my little boat as it bleeps along its onscreen course and completely miss the real landscape.

There’s a danger to navigating on screen. Boats have been known to run aground (to some very tragic outcomes) thanks to human vs chart plotter errors. With electronic navigation there is no necessity to keep a visual track of where you are going the way there is in paper navigating. And when you take human eyeballs out of the equation and stop trying to locate stars, lights, or other landmarks you can make mistakes. 

Tragedy is a rare outcome of electronic navigation though, mostly the drawbacks are the various risks of failure—what’s the back-up plan if your electricity fails and the screen goes blank? And really as a navigation aid (in addition to paper charts) chart plotters can really improve safety aboard.

So I lugged home 85 lbs of charts, fantasizing all the way about ditching them: maybe we should just have two chart plotters. Or maybe a chart plotter, a tablet and e-charts on the computer?

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