Its funny how the world moves on. Nearly 30 years ago, in 1987, I sailed from Gran Canaria to Barbados in the 2nd ARC, on Seareign, a Nicholson 35. We were by no means the smallest boat crossing that year – I seem to remember that the average size of boats in the ARC that year was around 38 feet, in 2004 it was just under 48 feet. In 2014, average length was 48 feet 4″ – average length seems to have settled at about 48 feet in recent years.
We had pretty rudimentary navigation equipment by todays standards – a radio direction finder (RDF), sextant, hand bearing compass, Walker trailing log and depth sounder. We did have one of the original satnavs, which we would turn on in the morning, and hope that we got a fix by late afternoon, which would be accurate to within about 30 miles if we were lucky! We didn’t have satellite communications, a water maker, a freezer, functional autopilot or AIS. If we look at what the average size boat had in 2014, 71% had satcoms, 35% had SSB, 77% had AIS and 62% had a water maker. We relied heavily on and vane self steering – only 6% of average sized boats had vane self steering in the 2014 ARC. I find that really difficult to understand. Vane self steering uses no electricity, is relatively simple to operate and generally helms a boat better than most people, particularly in the dark! A survey of the 2014 ARC competitors is available on the Yachting World website
Boats are getting longer, equipment is changing and I believe that the experience of those taking part is changing too. 30 years ago, many of those crossing were very experienced cruising folk, and liveaboards. It now seems that there are many people whose first taste of extended cruising is the journey south to the Canary Islands. This may not be a bad thing – people are less apprehensive than in the past, they tend to dive in and go for it. Organisations such as Worldcruising and the Clipper Round the World Race give people amazing opportunities to undertake ‘their adventure’, with a sense of security, a safety net. People with satellite communications feel safer. Unfortunately, accidents still do occur, as we have seen with accidents on cruising yachts and the incidents in a number of organised events. The sea is a dangerous place, to be respected.
Anyway, I am rambling…………! Yesterday, I got two deliveries, courtesy of eBay – two mounting plates for my old Walker Trailing Log and a rail mount for my satnav antenna. Two parts of very different navigation instruments. Trailing logs are like wind vanes – mechanical, no power required, accuracy generally pretty good.
The satnav / chart plotter on the other hand is an amazing piece of kit. Seeing your boat move on a screen in real time, incredibly accurate – but reliant on a power source. Using a modern chart plotter almost seems to need a degree in computer science! There are so many functions and the device can be networked with other compatible devices on board.
What is the ‘best’ approach – the all mechanical, traditional, low power approach or the all singing all dancing electronic approach? That is a matter of personal choice. I prefer to put my money into things other than electronics. Maybe I am a traditionalist a real ‘stuck in the mud’! I would disagree. I fully appreciate modern equipment (and those able to use it properly) but will always say that people should still be able to navigate with chart and pencil, compass and dividers.
The world has definitely changed. When we left Greystones in the summer of 1987, we had a number of pre-arranged ‘poste restante’ – pick ups – places where we knew we would pick up letters and parcels over the course of the coming year. These were the harbour office in La Palma, Gran Canaria, The Shallow Draft in Barbados, Road Bay in Anguilla and Petes Cafe Sport Bar in Horta, in the Azores. The world wide web didn’t exist, email was a twinkle in someones eye and once you left port, you were on your own until you arrived at your next destination.
Anyway, if you are sitting on a boat for a week or more, what better to do than brush up on your astronavigation skills, take the sextant and tables, do the sums and you will be amazed at the levels of satisfaction you get. I will certainly be taking my sextant across Biscay in a a few weeks!