Nautical Navigation Basics (Part 1): The Three Basic Steps of Navigation

Borrowing from Robert J. Sweet’s book, The Weekend Navigator, we will be doing a series on navigation basics for those that have just picked up their first boat, chart, or are about to head out to sea for the first time. By the end of this series, you should have an adequate understanding of how to navigate the open water. For a more thorough knowledge, we recommend you pick up the book, which can be found clicking the link above.

Unlike when driving an automobile, there are no set paths or roads to get through the water. As a result, it’s critical to have a decent idea of what types of hazards might be lurking underneath the surface. Everything from rocks to shallow water awaits, and because these hazards are constantly moving shifting, the charts that depict them must change as well. Therefore, it’s very important before setting out to ensure that the chart you have is recent.

According to Sweet, there are three basic steps of navigation: prevoyage planning, navigating underway and double-checking. There’s more involved than what’s listed below, but this is just a basic overlook before we really delve into it next time.

Prevoyage Planning: It’s always ideal to start out with an idea of what route you’re going to take. You wouldn’t just hop in your car without knowing where you’re going, would you? Sit down and take the time with a chart and familiarize yourself with a route. This is the time that you prequalify the paths you are about to take to make sure they are clear of underwater obstacles. Otherwise you might never get where you want to go!

Navigating Underway: As far as navigation goes, this is easy: just follow the paths that you planned. Underway, there are all sorts of other things to look out for, such as other boats, floating logs or whatever. Since you prequalified the path you’re on, you can be reasonably confident that underwater obstacles are not going to be a challenge. All you need to do is stay on course.

Double Check: Although GPS is incredibly reliable, when you’re navigating you must always double check. You never know when your GPS might be just a little, or even very, off. Or, maybe you made a mistake. For this, Sweet recommends using your eyes to observe charted landmarks or navigation aids that you can use to verify you are where you intended to be. A hand-bearing compass and plotting tool with your charts are the best backup. Radar and depth sounders can help, too, along with your charts. Of course, for the most updated paper charts we would recommend our own, but where you get those is up to your discretion.

Next time, we’ll look at Waypoint Navigation.


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