How Do I Get from A to B?

RYA Training ChartI recently returned to Gosport, UK to continue my training for the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race.  This time, the training was shore-based and included, in a short summary, various theory courses including navigation, meteorology and rules of the road.  The course is part of the RYA (Royal Yachting Association) requirements to eventually obtain the Yachtmaster certificate of competency.

Navigation, meaning how to get from point A to point B without any issues or mishaps; rules of the road, meaning when two ships cross, who has right of way; and meteorology, meaning knowing when a storm or clear weather is likely to pass over you.  Add a smattering of learning what various buoys in the water mean and what lights different boats may have at night or shapes they may hoist during the day, and that pretty much sums up our week of study.

Beyond the 10 second “elevator” summary above, the details are much more intense.  As they say, “the devil is in the details,” but if you are navigating through unknown coastal areas with tides and winds pushing your boat to-and-fro, the details can mean the difference between arriving at a harbor safely or ending up on the rocks!

Having flown into Heathrow from NYC, I spent a long three hours in the airport immigration line thanks to a “slowdown” (gotta’ love those unions!).  Nevertheless, I eventually made it to Gosport albeit a couple of hours late for class.  The first few days were spent learning navigation, with the class typically running from 9 am to 5 pm, then several hours of homework afterwards.

At first glance, it may sound simple to go from Point A to Point B.  Just look at a chart (nautical term for a map) and point your boat in the direction you want to go.  However, if the tides are flowing 1-2 knots perpendicular to you and are pushing you off to the side, where would you end up in an hour or two hours’ time?  Now, add to that winds pushing the boat sideways as well (leeway) and you have three different forces that you need to account for (direction sailed to destination, tidal direction and leeway).  But, lest you think that is all, you also have to take into account the variation between True and Magnetic compass directions.  Charts are always oriented to true north or the North Pole, while compasses point to the magnetic north which can be offset from the North Pole by a considerable amount depending on where in the Northern Hemisphere you are.

Ah, but in today’s modern world, we have GPS which tells us where we are all the time.  What need do we have for all this plotting stuff?  Well, setting a GPS waypoint (a “goto” position on a chart) will enable you to determine the direction you want to go, but it will not tell you the direction you need to steer to get to that direction.  If the tide is pushing you sideways to the right, you will need to steer a little more to the left to compensate.  If the wind is also pushing you a tad to the right, then you will again need to steer a tad to the left to compensate.  How much do you compensate, or what is the course to steer?  Ah, that is where all the plotting and calculations come into play!

To calculate the course, you must first know the time you will be leaving on a particular journey (or passage).  Then, for the area you will be travelling, you will need to look at tide tables for that particular day and time.  Once that is determined, you can use tidal charts or a tidal curve to determine the direction and speed of the tide (called set and drift).  Then, in plotting your course, you will add that to the chart to determine the actual direction you need to steer to get to that position.  At first, it can sound complex and confusing, but with enough practice, it does get easier.

After working through numerous, navigation exercises for several days (practice, practice, practice), it was on to learning about navigational buoys, rules of the road and meteorology.

Navigational buoys are the traffic signs of the waterways.  They can tell you where the main highway or thoroughfare is (the channel), whether it’s safe to pass to one side or the other of the mark, and where hazards may be.  Although there are a number of different buoys or marks, they basically fall into three types; lateral marks which mark channels (red and green buoys), cardinal marks which mark where water is too shallow to go (very rare in the U.S.) and special marks which are used to mark underwater cable, pipelines, sail racing areas, etc.

Rules of the road basically refers to the ColRegs also known as the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.  This area is a tad more intensive, but necessary to learn if you are going to be driving a boat anywhere in the world.  Basically, as a captain of a boat, you are responsible for that boat and the safety of the crew and others as well.  As part of learning/memorizing the ColRegs, you need to know how to identify different types of boats by the lights they show at night.  This is important because knowing the type of vessel will determine who has right of way.  In a crossing (or overtaking) situation, sailboats when sailing generally have right of way (technically called the stand on vessel), but larger vessels including those that cannot maneuver as easily generally trump sailboats.

It never ceases to amaze me in New York Harbor how many sailboaters adamantly exercise their “right” to go where they want, cruise ship, tug and barge or Staten Island ferry be damned!  This is stupidity taken to the extreme as those ‘skippers’ are putting the lives of their crew at risk.  If they can’t be bothered to learn the rules of the road, then it at the very least, learn the one maxim, “might is right.”  The bigger the boat and the more difficult it is to maneuver, the more it takes precedence over a smaller more agile vessel.  The photos below from Cowes Week are a good example of the consequence of ignoring this maxim!  And, while I have the bully pulpit, if a sailboat is motoring (engine on and engaged) it is then regarded as a motor vessel, not a sailboat.  Plain and simple.  But, I digress 🙂


The last day of our theory course was spent studying meteorology.  This was actually a tad disappointing as it covered very basic information (for me).  In the Northern Hemisphere the jet stream moves from west to east, and low pressure systems rotate counterclockwise (anti-clockwise for the Brits) while high pressure systems rotate clockwise.  What does this mean in practical terms?  Because the jet stream moves from west to east, any weather front will generally move along that direction over U.S., Canadian and European waters.  That helps to know where storms could come from.  And, if it is a low pressure system, depending on where that system is in relation to you, wind directions can be forecasted.  Wind speeds can also be forecasted by the pressure gradient (difference in atmospheric pressure).  The tighter the pressure gradient, the stronger the winds and vice versa.

All too soon, the week ended and it was back to Heathrow and on to New York.  I think rather than watching a movie on the plane, I’ll work through some navigation exercises. Now, where did I put those tidal diagrams …


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