RYA-tips #36 – Navigation, a look at the concept

Zeilen is een combinatie van wetenschap en kunst. En voor wie daar meer over wilt weten schrijft Albert De Nijs, instructeur bij de De Zeezeilers van Marken wekelijks een rubriek met tips&trics van de Royal Yachting Association.

Navigation in its various forms is one of my favourite subjects. It requires a framework of understanding before you can start discussing the details. Maybe it is similar to learning how to cook. Following a recipe might get you the results, but does not teach you anything about cooking at a fundamental level. It certainly doesn’t tell you what to do when things go wrong, or how to improvise when you haven’t got the listed ingredients.

There are many ways to establish your position (the recipes) and it’s easy to confuse that with navigation (cooking) itself. Understanding the concept of navigation allows you to act when things go wrong and choose between different ways of fixing your position. Once you know the why of something, it is easy to modify the how to achieve your desired result!

Ultimately, navigation is a mental process with several steps. Plan a route to where you want to go, find out where you cannot go, establish where you are (your position) and check your progress along the intended route.

Sailing in familiar waters you already have a mental picture, aware where you’re going and which areas to avoid. A look around is enough to establish your position and how far to go.

When exploring new areas, you need to build this mental picture beforehand. An efficient way to do this is to study charts and sailing directions. Personally, I like to draw an intricate pilotage with its courses, distances and reference points. It focusses the mind and makes memorizing easier.

While sailing you combine this mental knowledge of the environment with your actual position. That’s when the tools to fix the position come into view, be it cross-bearings, buoyage, transits, depth contours or gps. 

While sailing we seldom follow our planned route exactly. The mental picture of the surrounding helps in deciding when to stick closely to the route and when/where there is room to manoeuvre. 

Sometimes navigation does not need a lot of position fixing. As discussed in Article 16: ‘Running down the Latitude’, you can cross the ocean and find St Lucia with only Merpass fixes and a compass. A remarkable feat of navigation!

Albert de Nijs, Dutch Offshore Sailing Academy