Can Marine Electronics Replace Seamanship?
In a viral video, a boat in Florida races out of the fog, up a crowded beach and into a waterfront restaurant. Authorities state that neither alcohol nor drugs are involved. Only blind luck prevented anyone from getting killed.
Despite the fact that marine electronics have become uncannily reliable and touchscreen-easy to use, many boaters still overconfidently charge around in low visibility. Perhaps they ignore radar and GPS, deciding to trust experience and local knowledge. Whatever their perspective, basic seamanship still dictates that when visibility shuts down, captains should throttle back, post a lookout and sound fog signals.
The following anecdotes, pulled directly from my vessel’s logbook, illustrate several situations in which electronics alone might not have prevented a collision, accident or grounding. These vignettes also provide proof that mariners should use a variety of input to make decisions when navigating.
August 2, 2015
I hail a fellow angler over the VHF. He’s catching. I want to know where. He’s in South Jersey, about 150 miles away. My boat has that kind of range; the VHF doesn’t. However, in certain atmospheric conditions, radio waves bounce.
Most times, the Doppler effect is a fun experience. But suppose I had been requesting local knowledge to best transit the inlet? He would’ve given me the best route through Manasquan even though I was lying off Shinnecock.
Lesson: Ask the location of anyone you speak to on the VHF, as a matter of practice.
April 4, 2017
It’s night. I’m following my chart plotter through a narrow channel. The plotter shows me I’m in navigable water, but there’s a glint off a seam of water ahead—a sand flat. I throttle back and squat low to the gunwale, cocking my head sideways to kick-start my peripheral vision, which proves better at night than looking straight ahead. I spy the silhouette of an unlit buoy 200 yards away, and then another a little farther ahead.
The buoys had been moved since my charts were last updated, winter storms having shifted the shoals.
Lesson: Update your charts regularly.
June 17, 2018
I’m picking my way through fog. The buoys paint clearly on the radar, their positions verified by the chart plotter. But as I approach the next mark, I first hear, and then see, a boat cross my bow at 50 feet.
The boat had been anchored beside the marker, and both displayed as just one target on the screen. I avoided a collision thanks to sight, sound, and both boats operating at dead-slow speed in the thick visibility.
I wouldn’t be without electronics, but they can deceive you at times, and you should be aware of when and why.
Lesson: Never outrun your visibility.
October 19, 2020
My brand-new 1 kW depth sounder tells me I’m in 2 feet of water. I know I’m in 5 feet because I’m just off my own dock. Plus, my boat draws 3 feet and I’m still floating.
Lesson: In shallow water, make sure your transducer is set to ping at a frequency of 200 kHz or higher. Using chirp sonar, with its multifrequency pulses, often eliminates this issue entirely.
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