Modern electronics continue to evolve in both their amazing capabilities and their simplicities. For the boater and fishermen alike, the accuracy of chart plotters and the charts that load into them are incredible tools for navigating unknown areas. Whether you are running a small cut through the reef in the Bahamas or your home channel, being familiar with your electronics is very important.
In broad daylight, familiar waters are easy to navigate and may not take much thought. It is easy to take for granted the fact that the luxury of visibility can disappear in a flash.
Be it rainstorms, fog, darkness or even just the glare of the setting sun, you may suddenly be dependent on your navigation electronics to thread the eye of the needle.
Many charts have the paths of travel marked for you and this is a great reference line, but just like the opening page says, these charts should not be the sole source of navigation.
A cautious boater will take the few extra minutes to enter known waypoints for the route out and home again. You may get these starting waypoints from a chart, travel guide, fishing buddy or by entering them on a bright sunny day while you are out. When your waypoints land right on the electronic chart’s path, you can feel confident that is the true path.
This brings me to my next point and I will use a recent trip to the Bahamas as an example. Before the trip begins, I plot out the course and cuts of the destinations using a cruising guide. In this case, The Cruising Guide to Abaco by Steve Dodge. This is a great and accurate resource that many boaters have used for years to navigate the waters of the northern Bahamas known as the Abaco chain.
From the book I enter waypoints into my GPS plotter, labeling them just as the book does to eliminate confusion when referencing between the two. I always enter the coordinates for all of the nearby cuts or ports that I will pass on the trip. This way if you have a problem or worse, an emergency, you already have your escape route plotted and entered into the machine. During an issue or bad weather is the worst time to get out the book and start entering optional routes.
Now even when using the points from a good guide, they are usually just the minimum points to keep you on track. Pictured here is the chart for the North Cut of Spanish Cay. The guide has a point out front on the offshore side and a path through the reef. Many of these cuts are for daytime navigation only when you can see the distinct color differences between safe water and hard aground. But as I mentioned earlier, many factors can suddenly take away your visibility.
When I get to an area for the first time, I’m using the waypoints provided, but when I do have visibility and confidence that I’m on the right path, I will laydown more waypoints along the way. Don’t go crazy and clutter your machine, but lay down points at any turn or at intervals to keep you on a straight line. The tighter the squeeze, the closer I lay down the waypoints so that I have more points of reference.
Here is the same cut pictured on the plotter with my additional points. This cut is pretty small with 20 feet of water in the middle and run-aground coral reef a close distance on either side. Laying down this path will also help in the low light conditions of leaving early to go fishing.
When you do have good visibility, always pay attention to your path to confirm it takes you where you need to be and fine-tune it if needed. Delete any un-needed points to eliminate confusion.
Now this caution is crucial in exotic locations to keep your running gear attached to your boat, but the same steps should be taken in the marked channel at home.
You also want to keep a written copy of your routes on the boat. I copy the waypoints in sequence on a pad, because we all know that Murphy’s Law applies double on a boat. In the unlikely event your machine’s memory goes blank, you will need the list to re-enter your crucial data on the fly.
With today’s technology, you can probably email the list from your phone, but a hard copy might just save the day and those extra waypoints home will boost your navigational ability and confidence.