Finding Your Way

The subject of navigation takes up volumes. “Eyeball navigation”—one of its meanings is that you use the evidence of your eyes to sail to a place and return—is what you’ll use as a beginner. But it helps to be able to use a compass, read a chart, and understand common aids to navigation.

The magnetic needle on a compass always points to magnetic north; it tells you which way your boat is heading in relation to magnetic north. The compass card shows the 360 degrees of a circle, with steering marks usually every 5 degrees.

A navigation chart is like a road map for the water. Charts come in different scales; you’ll want to use one that shows the area in considerable detail (1:20,000 is a good scale). A compass rose on the chart shows both true and magnetic north.

Here are some of the other things you’ll see on a chart.

A buoy, shown on a chart as a small diamond with a number next to it, marks a channel or a hazard, such as a shoal or rock. Green channel buoys (“cans”) are odd-numbered; cone-shaped red buoys (“nuns”) have even numbers. The rule of thumb in the United States for following buoys is, starting from the sea toward a harbor, “Red, right, returning”—leave red channel buoys to starboard as you enter a harbor. Buoys with black-and-white vertical stripes mark the middle of a channel.

There are many lighted (flashing) buoys and others that make noise with a bell, gong, or whistle. These characteristics are marked on the chart; for example, “Fl R 4sec BELL” is a bell buoy with a red light that flashes every 4 seconds. Unlighted daybeacons, located in the water or on land, also mark obstructions and harbor entrances.

Charts also show water depths: white for deep water, light blue for water less than 20 feet, and green are for no water at low tide. Depths at low tide are shown at frequent intervals. In addition, charts locate tall conspicuous objects that are easy to identify from the water - for example, church steeples, radio towers, and flagpoles.

Coastal piloting and navigation are fascinating subjects; the more extended your sailing, the more expert you need to be. Electronic position-finding systems, such as loran and GPS (the satellite-driven Global Positioning System) have simplified the navigator's task.

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