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Vol 43 | Num 11 | Jul 11, 2018

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Article by Capt. Mark Sampson

I don't have to tell anyone that "knowing where you are" is one of the most important things about boating. Whether you want to go out to the fishing grounds or back to the inlet, if you don't know your present position you won't know which way to point your bow to get to where you want to go.

In the "old days" knowing where you were was more problematic. With no LORAN or GPS to spit out location coordinates boaters would have to estimate their position by considering the depth of the water, how long and how fast they traveled and in which general direction. Those details would be taken to a chart, and after a little bit of pondering and perhaps a few calculations on scratch paper, a rough location would be determined and a course to wherever would be plotted. The more accurate the skipper's starting location, the better chance he had of knowing which way to steer to get to the final destination. And trust me - it was not uncommon to miss the fishing grounds or even the inlet by many miles!

Oh how nice we have it now! Drag your finger across the screen of your chart plotter to the place you want to go, tap-tap and you've got distance, speed, time and course-to-steer staring you in the face. Yeah, it's become that simple! And that's a good thing…..right?

Unless you're a fish that doesn't want to be caught, I don't think there's much debate about whether or not the new navigation technology is good for boaters or not - it's good. Simple touch and go electronics can save boaters a lot of time, effort and fuel and allow them to steer clear of hazards as they navigate from one end of the planet to another. We've all got them and we all use them, but there is indeed a downside to it that has come in the form of the dumbing-down of a lot of upcoming skippers. Just like so many other skills we no longer have because we let our so-called "smart" devices do them for us, the ability to truly navigate a boat from point “A” to point “B” using nothing but a paper chart, a compass, and a little brainpower is fading fast from the realm of the average boater.

Point and click navigation is great, but it's making idiots of upcoming boaters. You don't have to be very old to remember a time when you carried a map in your car to find your way though unfamiliar territory. If you're old like me you even remember when maps were given out FREE at service stations. Now it's just as hard to buy a map as it is to find a "service" station. Of course, they're not selling maps these days because no one can read them anyway. Thanks to the idiot-makers we carry in our pockets, all we have to do these days is to type or speak where we want to go and suddenly some strange woman is telling us where to go. "Turn left, merge right, recalculating, make a u-turn at the next intersection you stupid idiot, your destination is on the right".

So we blindly follow the robot woman's instructions and get to where we want to go, but have no idea where we are or how to get back home. But no worries - she'll guide us home as well. Left, right, right, left. "Thank you mam, I'll open you up tomorrow to help me find my way out to the mailbox at the end of my driveway"! Many boaters have fallen into the same lazy mans trap of not knowing how to read a chart because the idiot box on our consoles do it for us. Heck, many boat operators these days don't even own charts, let alone know how to read or navigate by one.

While I'm kinda-sorta making fun of this situation, a real problem is brewing here and boaters are already paying the price for it. If the idiot-maker in your pocket misdirects you to the closest Walmart, at worst you might run out of gas and have to call for help. If the idiot box on your boat leads you astray you could die! Every boater needs to have enough basic navigation skills so that if their electronics fail them in any way they can always find their way home, and I know of no better example of this than what I overheard on the radio last week.

A guy in a small boat was broken down and called for assistance on the VHF radio. A local tow company responded to his call and asked for his location. He responded by saying "I'm at the Chicken Bone", which is a local nickname for a fishing destination about 30-miles off Ocean City. When the tow company asked the fellow for his coordinates, he came back with "38-degrees decimal 24 and 74-degrees decimal 42".

As soon as I heard his response, I knew that he didn't know what he was talking about because whenever you recite coordinates you always give the degrees first, then the minutes, THEN the decimal point, followed by the tenths of a minute or the seconds. By him putting the decimal point after the degrees, it was obvious that he didn't know how to read latitude and longitude, which might not be a problem for a boater "until" they need to call for a towboat to come find them 30-miles offshore. Then it becomes pretty important.

I was somewhat surprised that the tow guy didn't question the fellow's location information. Instead he verified the financial terms and told him that he was getting underway and would contact him when he got close. Upon hearing the fellows "messed up" coordinates, I went to my own idiot box chart plotter and punched in the coordinates and came up with a location 18-miles NE of Ocean City and nowhere near where I knew the Chicken Bone to be, which told me that either the guy was not at the Chicken Bone, or he was sending the tow boat captain on a wild goose chase by giving him the wrong coordinates for where he thought he was.

An hour or so later, the towboat captain called the stricken boat and said that he had arrived at the coordinates, but didn't see him anywhere. When he asked the fellow to repeat his location he was again given the same bogus numbers. Time and space won't allow me to relay the frustrating and almost comical discussions between the two boats as they tried to figure out where the broken down boat really was. Suffice to say that the fellow really was near the Chicken Bone, but his GPS was giving him bad coordinates, and while someone might contend "well then it wasn't his fault", I would beg to differ because if he knew the bare minimum about navigation, he would have known that what he saw on his GPS display was not his location AND he could have verified that by plotting those numbers on a chart, if he even had a chart and knew how to read it.

During the "where are you" dilemma, the tow guy asked the fellow if he had another device that could provide location information. He said "no", but I'm assuming that someone onboard had an idiot-maker (cell phone) with them and even though they would not have had cell service, they could have used their phone's location features to give them their simple location coordinates. That's a capability that I'm pretty sure all phones have and every boater should know how to access as an emergency backup for their onboard GPS.

It was a clam day and all the folks on that boat needed was a tow back to port, but what if they were sinking or if there was a medical emergency? Not being able to accurately tell someone where you are can waste the valuable time of whoever might be looking for you, it can also end in needless tragedy. I'm not going to go so far as to say that every skipper who runs a boat out on the ocean needs to be an expert navigator, but I will say that if someone is incapable of determining accurate latitude and longitude coordinates for their present location they had better stay inside the inlet until they learn how - it's really not that hard!

Capt. Mark Sampson is an outdoor writer and captain of the charter boat, “Fish Finder”, docked at the Ocean City Fishing Center.

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