This month Jonty Pearce urges us not to rely on digital navigation

I worry about clouds. Not the fine grey fluffy ones that hog the sky and deny us our vitamin D, or the dark ones that so love to drench us, nor even the nasty black ones that fire thunderbolts at us. No, I’m more worried about invisible ones – iClouds. These nebulous beasts float about unseen in the aether, and instead of producing traditional downpours wreak their vengeance through the medium of download and its evil twin, the upload. They invade our everyday lives more that we realise – everywhere around us iPhones are glued to ears, or hunched backs are bent over iPads. And they all communicate invisibly with iClouds – web storage areas where our data resides. I myself have been infected with this disease; I use these devices at work as well as play. I am writing this piece on one. Indeed, though I do not navigate by them, increasingly more of my weather forecasting is sourced through their microwaves. And, apart from the potential ticking time bomb of exposure to such radiation, sea water and electricity tends to combine with a little sizzle of chlorine scented malfunction. No, I do not think that our budding over-dependence on electronic devices bodes well for onboard reliability. We are in danger of having our heads in the wrong sort of clouds.

Now, I have always enjoyed reading about sailing in old times when most aspects of sailing appears to romantically resemble ‘a simple life’. It evidently wasn’t all roses, though – discomfort, hardship, danger and shipwreck litter the literary scene, and the multiplicity of incomprehensibly named cordage confused the inexperienced.

By comparison we now enjoy many labour saving devices that enable sailing couples to roam a world previously the province of larger crews. Historical exceptions do exist, but now Mr and Mrs Jones next door can now rent out their house and set off on a world circuit for several years to celebrate their redundancy packages, escaping the trials and tribulations of modern life. Sailing couples have developed a strong reliance on autopilots, electric winches, GPS, satellite phones, radar, AIS, and chartplotters. Boats are now being produced with vestigial chart tables on the assumption that all navigation will be electronic. Laptop navigation is commonplace, and those sailors who record their position hourly on a paper chart are becoming the minority. Trinity House seems intent on reducing navigational marks as a consequence of the proliferation of GPS systems capable of providing pinpoint position regardless of conditions. The joys of searching through the dark for the loom of the next lighthouse or trying to work out the direction of a foghorn in the smog are becoming old hat. Indeed, every release of ‘Notices to Mariners’ contains corrections deleting sound signals and navigation aids, and inserting AIS beacons that compound our reliance on the ever reliable GPS.

But is it reliable? Any social misfit with a GPS blocker could send whole sections of our coastline plummeting into navigational uncertainty. We rely on the USA to allow us use of their satellites – but when were Americans ever reliable? We assume that our own craft’s electronics are infallible. At the end of last season I suddenly lost my GPS fix, eventually discovering that the GPS receiver’s wire had been trapped along its route down a stanchion and through the deck. The resulting short upset the whole SeaTalk system and caused electronic mayhem. It was not the end of the sailing day: I have a chart table with hourly positions entered on my ever open charts, and a hand held compass for three point fixes. But I lost all the luxuries of following a little boat shaped icon on my screen, and my tide and wind direction vectors vanished. The DSC radio repeatedly warned me it had no up to date position, and the MOB system bleeped irritatingly until it was all turned off. 

Now I can sail as happily as the next old salt with no instruments, and sometimes even turn off all the electronics ‘just for fun’. But I do far prefer not to wear my hair shirt unless it is really cold, and enjoy watching my reassuring little icon sailing placidly across the screen. Whilst admitting to be ‘Mr Gadget’ I do own a sextant, though my reference books are currently out of date and my best position so far has been to the nearest twenty miles. The discovery of an iPhone Sextant app designed to simplify all those difficult calculations amused me. So much for getting back to basics.

It is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security in this cocoon of technology. Every ARC reports that autopilot failure is one of the commonest and most fatigue inducing problems – and for a small crew the idea of helming night and day scrapes the jam off the bread and butter of cruising. I have ‘enjoyed’ a passage with a stripped autopilot gearbox, and even after upgrading it I still do not trust the system not to beep at me with the laconic statement ‘autopilot drive failure’. Long stints tied to the helm whilst seasick crew sleep below engender fatigue, and fatigue leads to mistakes. Small crews with electronic aids face a different set of risks and challenges to old-timers. As in all aspects of life, keeping things in balance is at the core of seafaring probity. Enjoy your iClouds and smart devices, but do not depend on them. Their role should be to augment rather than replace your navigational nous. Don’t trap yourself down below watching an LCD screen – get up topsides and take a long, hard look at proper clouds. They’re the ones to keep your head in.

Jonty Pearce