Editorial November 2006 Issue

Rhumb Lines -- Getting a Fix on Reality

It was mid-July 1990 on the Caicos Banks, a stretch of shallow, gin-clear water extending for about 70 miles east to west in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Along with a dozen other cruisers who’d chosen to thumb our noses at hurricane season (ah, those were simpler times), we were pausing in Providenciales before heading south.

Aboard Tosca, discussion centered on whether we could spur our aging ketch, whose lethargy was legendary, across the bank during daylight hours. With good light and a fair wind, an able sailor can skirt the shoals without worries. But light, contrary winds promised to stall our progress, so the most obvious choices were to either spend a sleepless night anchored in the middle of the bank and hope a midnight squall wouldn’t send us dragging pell-mell through a coral minefield or put our obstinate diesel to work. We were soon presented with a third option.“Toucan has a magic box,” declared our friend Ronny, who was taking an extended break from a television career aboard a 29-foot S2. “We’re going to sail with them.”

The “magic box” of course, was the Magellan 1000, a clunky “handheld” GPS that cost nearly one-quarter the price we’d paid for Tosca. Sure, its fixes came  erratically, and it chewed through batteries, but that summer, it was the very pinnacle of technological achievement in marine electron-ics. In theory, the Magellan would guide the boats safely out into the pre-dawn blackness, leaving more than sufficient time to complete the rest of the crossing in good light.

Handheld GPS units float (and sink) in our test tank. Not every unit lived up to its claims of water resistance. See page 18 for the results.

The Tosca-ites politely declined the opportunity to crawl out of our bunks at 4 a.m. Frankly, we had far more faith in dead reckoning, a noonsite, and our own eyes than any magic box (a bit of hubris that both saved us and nearly doomed us over the next several years).

While our friends followed satellite-engendered waypoints, we fixed our eyes on the compass and nervously studied any shift in water color. A mystery current and a wobbly sun shot added their own due measures of doubt. Our running fixes bore sweat-stained circles of error. Yet nine hours after setting out, Tosca slipped behind the deserted Ambergris Cays, just in time to catch a lobster dinner before the sun went down.

This month’s test of handheld GPS units (Pint-size Navigators Put To the Test) reminds me how far we’ve come in 15 years. For less than $300, we can buy a pocket-sized GPS that instantly provides vital nav data and plots our course on a tiny chart. It stores hundreds of waypoints, delivers tide tables, locates marinas, and even floats when we drop it in the drink.

Some say the GPS has taken away one of the last great challenges of cruising pinpointing our position in an unfamiliar place. That isn’t quite true. Until the world is perfectly depicted in pixels (or on paper), cruisers will still have days when we’re not exactly sure where we are on this planet. Let us enjoy them while we still can.

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