Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Sailing The Old Fashioned Way

Reasons to be cheerful, a thought on how to ensure low cost cruising. Can you sail without radar, GPS, electronic plotters, electronic compasses, wind-speed indicators, fish finders, computers and weather stations? Yes you can! Twenty or thirty years ago most of this technology hadn't been invented but we still put out to sea in small boats. Did we enjoy our sailing? You bet! Did we get to our destinations safely? Certainly, in fact you could argue that safety has been compromised since we became ever more reliant upon new technology. So,those old guys who taught me to sail  knew a thing or two.  One thing is for sure, we’d all be a lot better off if every pound, euro or dollar spent on electronic gizmos stayed in our pockets. 

A guy I know recently jumped on board his powerboat in St Helier harbour, opened a can of coke, turned on his electronic plotter and selected the route for St Peter Port Guernsey, another Island 25 miles distant. Ten minutes later he was outside the harbour, in clear water and the automatic pilot was engaged. He didn’t touch the wheel again until he was ten minutes from his destination. An effortless cruise he called it, but if that is his idea of sailing, why didn’t he just take the regular ferry? He has never plotted the course on paper and wouldn’t know what to do if the electronics went down. Boat owner he may be – sailor certainly not! The basic elements of seamanship are missing, along with the romance and the satisfaction of voyaging under your own steam, reading the tides, the weather, the wind and the waves. Not only does he lose all that but he also pays big money for a rack of electronic equipment and a boat he barely understands.

Perhaps at this point I should explain that I am not a Luddite and I am not looking back on the past with spectacles of a certain rosy hue. Some technological aids are a godsend. I won’t put to sea outside the bay without a VHF radio. In fact on my previous boat I carried two, the second one being a small handheld for use ‘just in case’, likewise, an echo sounder. As for the rest, well I have GPS but I use it as a back-up to traditional navigation – and quite frankly I don’t feel the need to upgrade. So on this simple sailing low cost cruising project I’ll consider how the old timers did it and think twice before buying that ‘all singing all dancing’ piece of electronic kit.

Paper charts used to be the key to all navigation. They were valued, cared for and always updated. Compasses were checked for accuracy and all seamen knew about deviation and variation. They understood the difference between true north and magnetic north and they knew how to apply the arithmetic. The only other bits of kit needed were a couple of pencils, a plotter and an eraser.

Pilotage and coastal navigation was done by eye using ‘marks’ to constantly update the position. On the east coast of Jersey, for example, you can sail a straight course along the coast between some horrendous rocks and sandbars to or from Gorey harbour for about two and a half miles in perfect safety, providing you keep a particular house on top of the hill directly over the pier head as you sail towards or away from it. Breast marks (two conspicuous objects in line off to port or starboard) can often be used to indicate places on a route where a change of course should be made.

Buoys can be used as sea marks and ‘buoy hopping’ is a legitimate way of making the voyage. Tide tables can often be obtained from local chandlers free of charge and the old ‘rule of twelfths’ to calculate the depth of water and strength of tide for any given time between high and low is still a valid procedure.

The old guys knew how to calculate speed and for them it was a fairly simple affair. If you knew your boat well you’d make a fairly reasonable estimate but if you were unsure then it was simply a matter of putting a crew member in the bows of the boat to throw a piece of wood well ahead. He would then call out as the stem of the boat passed it. Another crew member called out as it passed the stern. Armed with this information, the boat speed can be obtained by thinking of the length of the boat in meters, doubling it, and then dividing this number by the number of seconds it took the boat to pass the piece of wood. There you had the boat’s speed through the water! In truth though, with a boat which has a maximum hull speed of 5 knots, how wrong can you get? Will an error of one knot of speed through the water make a huge difference to your calculations?

Leeway? An estimation of the number of degrees the wake is curving away from the boat indicates how much compensation you need to give the helm.

Ah, but what about fog, how do you handle that without radar? Well, you try to avoid it but if you are caught out it is often possible to ‘feel your way’ to a place of relative safety by using the echo sounder to run along an underwater contour line marked on the chart.

Navigation in the old way was not an exact science but the more you sailed the better refined your skills became. We always used to ‘aim’ a little up-tide or up-wind of our intended destination so that if adjustments had to be made as we closed the coast, it was a relatively easy matter to fall down onto the target.

Despite its apparent lack of precision though, there are some who would say it was safer. In the pre-electronic days, you had to watch the elements and know your boat. Chart work had to be done carefully and the log had to be maintained. You made your own plans and ploughed your own furrow. Two incidents in recent years make me question the wisdom of an over reliance on electronics. The first one involved a skipper who hit a large buoy he had used as a waypoint. The electronics were a bit too accurate and he was concentrating on the electronic screen rather than keeping a good lookout. The second was a comment made by a skipper only a few weeks ago on his return from Cherbourg.  ‘Everyone wants to get from A to B by the shortest most logical route. They all use the same waypoints and plot the same course there and back. Every vessel is running along the same line at different speeds often in opposite directions. There’s a lot of water out there but for most of the time we’re all trying to use the same bit!’

If you're interested in Marlinspike sailing as its is sometimes known. Here is a good book on the subject
The Marlinspike Sailor  (USA Readers)
The Marlinspike Sailor (UK Readers)