A Navigation Experiment

Gould Island in the snow.
A snowy early-morning approach to Gould Island
Late winter on Gould Island
Keeping warm with driftwood fires and coffee.

After spending only half the winter grinding fiberglass in the boat shop I mentioned in my last post, my full-time captain’s job at Clean the Bay came calling unexpectedly early. It seems the project that was suspended just before Christmas was ready to start up again, even though it was still the dead of winter, and I had to crash the work boat though a good bit of sheet ice to get down the bay and into position. I guess it was nice, for a while, to be working outside after palely loitering in a building all day for so many weeks, but the joy of the outdoors tends to wear thin when the inescapable cold keeps you in its clutches for ten hours out of every twenty-four.
The reason we weren’t doing the job during more humane weather was because the site is a bird-nesting sanctuary, and we had to be there while the birds didn’t want it yet. As it turns out, we and the birds overlapped by a couple weeks, but we were gone before nesting began

Deep blue water.
Schooner Magic in the gulfstream.
Dyneema fancy work
One of the custom rigging projects that filled in a spare week.
Shallow turquoise water.
On the Bahama bank.
AstraIIIB sextant in action.
Shooting the midafternoon sun with a sextant.
Lines of position, dead reckoning, and running fixes.
A plotting sheet full of the chickenscratching of celestial navigation.
Bustling along in the gulfstream.
A glorious day under sail before the North Atlantic fog socks in.

in earnest.
As if to reward my patience during that mind and body-numbing winter, and to sustain me in its midst, I had a real treat to look forward to: Magic, the little schooner I’d sailed down to Hampton last fall, was ready to be brought up again from Nassau, where she’d spent the winter. The original date of April 15 got moved back three times due to weather; the bird island project was supposed to end April 1, and got carried on to April 20th. So I was on the trip and off again several times before both the schedules settled, and wound up having a spare week in between.
Lucky I did, I guess, since I had a great deal of rigging work waiting, and it took that long before I had it all sorted and could fly for Nassau with nothing hanging overhead. It’s a bit of a shame that we didn’t get to spend more time in the Bahamas. We flew in one afternoon, did some shopping, and sailed out next morning. Oh well, at least I got to drive a right-handed loaner car on the wrong side of the road for a spell. Weird.
Magic is a tip-top boat, and had been kept in tip-top shape—even the water and fuel tanks were full and ready for us, so after a quick but thorough once-over of the rig and systems there was nothing to do but cast off and wend through the coral-studded channel onto the open bank. What a treat to feel blazing sun on the skin again after a winter of watery New England sunshine! And what a treat to sail over turquoise water again after the dull, icy, gray-green brine of Narragansett Bay!
By nightfall we were out the Fleeming channel and well into the ocean, with Spanish Wells far enough astern that no lights were to be seen. And as planned, we saw no more signs of land until the wind farm at Block Island loomed out of the fog eight days later. It was a typical passage: there were equal shares of calm, of light airs, and of bluster, and we made our way among it all as best we could. What was not typical was that I had the chance to do a long-awaited experiment, one which was only possible in a context like this, with two other guys on the boat who could safely navigate.
That experiment was to navigate by sextant and dead reckoning, plotting fixes to compare with GPS positions plotted separately (which they maintained), just to see how close the results would be. And so I kept a running fix on plotting sheets, taking sights five or six times a day, and plotting our position on the paper chart from time to time to compare to the GPS fix. Gratifyingly, in spite of having to throw out a bunch of sights due to vagaries in sight-taking and reduction (there are a LOT of things that can go wrong with a sight reduction, any of which can render it useless), the two tracks plotted stayed pretty close, weaving gently across each other’s paths, but never far enough off to cause concern.
Where it all began to fall apart was near the end, when clouds and rain prevented sight taking for the last day or so. Still, there were the usual signs of nearness to land: deep-water crab trap floats betrayed shelving of the bottom; meeting the New York shipping lanes was as obvious as crossing the street. And in the end, even the GPS was of little avail in avoiding the Block Island windfarm, since in it’s newness its location isn’t charted yet. While Chris, the boat’s owner, sat below calling his land support to get the coordinates of the offshore windmills, I stood at the helm in sou’-wester and pea jacket peering into the gray curtain surrounding the schooner. It took several calls and some standing by, but at last Chris called out through the companion: “I know where they are!”
Sometimes you just get lucky. While he was still copying numbers down on a pad, the fog thinned and in the distance off to leeward I saw the gangly frame and lazy turning blades of the nearest windmill. Calling out “me too!” I looked beyond them to see the low mass of Block Island beyond, if only for a moment, before the fog socked in again.
While we might have made landfall just as precisely by sextant and DR, we would certainly not have made it as confidently without the GPS to confirm and pinpoint. And that’s just where the GPS shines: without it, there’s a lot more peering blindly into fog; a lot more careful listening for buoy bells; a lot more wondering, a lot more strain on nerves and senses. Sure, it’s nice to feel confident that I can navigate around after a fashion with sextant and compass; and it’s great fun to pilot by bearings and ranges, but when it’s dark or wet or foggy, with the wind forward of the beam and the unknown under my lee, there’s nothing to compare to the comfort of the GPS.

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