Navigate to Safety When Lost at Sea Using a Nautical Chart, a Sextant, and a Compass

There’s a scene in Robert Redford’s All is Lost where the lead character, a yacht sailor lost at sea, loses power to his radio and GPS system. Throughout the movie, the character moves from his broken yacht to a life raft, taking a few select items with him, one of these being his nautical chart. Although he was not able to figure out where he was at first, through the use of a chart, a guide book, and an old-fashioned sextant, he was able to get a general idea of where he was.

That raises the question: when “all is lost” and you’re cut off from the world in the middle of the open ocean, how do you figure out where you are? Fortunately, nautical navigation has been around for a very long time, so there are plenty of time-tested strategies you can use in order to figure out where you are. Here are two.

Let’s consider the three main things to take into account here: the stars, the skyline, and you. Using a sextant or another angle-measuring device, you can use these three different points to triangulate your location. The sextant, for example, uses the horizon and a celestial body in the sky in order to determine where you are. There’s a very easy guide on how to use one here.

Another useful tool in nautical navigation is the compass. Using a simple magnetic compass can help you figure out your latitude and longitude, and it’s an easy way to figure out at least where at sea you might be and to orient your chart accordingly. It couldn’t hurt to get a book on the topic or read articles such as this one.

Regardless, both the compass and the sextant are virtually ineffective at sea without a proper chart along for the ride. That’s why, if you find yourself afloat and lost, it is good to have already had a little practice with these techniques and a nautical chart in the boat. It’s important that sailors, both experienced and new, read up on these practices and ensure that they’re prepared. You won’t regret it if you are.


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