Mid-Life Cruising Sabbatical

Chapter 5

Navigation


We have gotten several questions on navigation, e.g. "How difficult is the navigation for this type of cruise?" Let me set your minds at ease. All you really need to have is basic coastal navigation skills and a little common sense. You need to know how to read a chart, plot a course, take bearings and plot lines of position, and do current calculations. You do not need to learn celestial navigation and you do not need electronic aids.

Having said that we didn't (and wouldn't) do this trip without GPS. However, for many years people have been making this trip with only dead reckoning navigation.

Let's look at why this is so. Assuming you follow our route (and the one described in Van Sant's book), the longest passage you will make is about 160 miles (from Samana, Dominican Republic to the western end of Puerto Rico). For over half this way you are coasting along the DR. Both the DR and Puerto Rico are mountainous so you are not actually out of sight of land for very long. Other passages are less than half this one. Ergo dead reckoning works fine.

You will of course need a reliable compass. You might want to have it swung before setting off. A hand bearing compass or binoculars with a built in compass are nice.

Your basic navigation aid will be charts. I don't remember how we decided on our initial set, but here they are. This table is organized as follows: chart name; source; reference number. BA is British Admiralty, DMA is US Defense Mapping Agency, and IMRAY is Imray-Iolaire.

Chartkits for the Bahamas and the Virgins

 

 

PILOT CHARTS, CENTRAL AMERICAN WATERS

 

 

HATI TO PUERTO RICO

BA

3689

MONA PASSAGE

DMA

25700

EASTERN CARRIBEAN

IMRAY

1

LESSER ANTILLES, PUERTO RICO TO MARTINIQUE

IMRAY

A

PUERTO RICO

IMRAY

A1

ANGUILLA, ST MARTIN, ST BARTS

IMRAY

A24

ST CHRISTOPHER, ST EUSTATIUS, NEVIS, MONTSERRAT, SABA

IMRAY

A25

BARBUDA

IMRAY

A26

ANTIGUA

IMRAY

A27

GUADELOUPE

IMRAY

A28

DOMINICA

IMRAY

A29

MARTINIQUE

IMRAY

A30

LESSER ANTILLES, MARTINIQUE TO TRINIDAD

IMRAY

B

ST LUCIA

IMRAY

B1

BARBADOS

IMRAY

B2

GRENADINES - ST VINCENT TO GRENADA

IMRAY

B3

GRENADINES - ST VINCENT TO MUSTIQUE

IMRAY

B30

GRENADINES - BEQUIA TO CARRIACOU

IMRAY

B31

GRENADINES - CANOUAN TO CARRIACOU

IMRAY

B311

VENEZUELA - PORT OF SPAIN TO CABO CODERA

IMRAY

D1

VENEZUELA - CABO CODERA TO CABO SAN ROMAN

IMRAY

D2

Most of the IMRAYs came from Boat US (all except the Ds). The rest came from Blue Water Books in Ft. Lauderdale.

Along the way we realized we didn't have adequate charts for the Turks & Caicos and the Dominican Republic. We borrowed some from a fellow cruiser and made some poor but adequate photocopies. These were:

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - CABO FRANCIS VIEJO TO PUNTA NISIBON

DMA

25710

TURKS AND CAICOS AND DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - MONTE CRISTO TO CABO FRANCES

 

 

VIEJO

DMA

25720

APPROACHES TO BAHIA DE SAMANA

DMA

25723

PUERTO PLATA

DMA

25803

PASSAGE BETWEEN ACKLINS ISLAND, HATI, AND CAICOS ISLANDS

DMA

26260

When we got to Trinidad we added the following. You'll notice some duplicates from our "cheap photocopy" list. We threw the cheap photocopies away.

VIRGIN PASSAGE AND SONDA DE VIEQUES

DMA

25650

ISLA DE CULEBRA AND APPROACHES

DMA

25653

BAHIA DE BOQUERON

DMA

25675

SOUTH COAST OF PUERTO RICO - GUANICA LIGHT TO PT TUNA LIGHT

DMA

25677

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - CABO FRANCIS VIEJO TO PUNTA NISIBON

DMA

25710

TURKS AND CAICOS AND DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - MONTE CRISTO TO CABO FRANCES VIEJO

DMA

25720

APPROACHES TO BAHIA DE SAMANA

DMA

25723

PUERTO PLATA

DMA

25803

PASSAGE BETWEEN ACKLINS ISLAND, HATI, AND CAICOS ISLANDS

DMA

26260

TRINIDAD TO CARUPANO

IMRAY

D11

VENEZUELA - CARUPANO TO CUMANA & ISLA MARGARITA

IMRAY

D12

VENEZUELA - ISLA MARGARITA TO CARENERO

IMRAY

D13

ISLANDS OFF THE COAST OF VENEZUELA TORTUGA, BLANQUILLA, TESTIGOS

IMRAY

D14

VENEZUELA - CABO CODERA TO PTA SAN JUAN

IMRAY

D21

ISLANDS OFF THE COAST OF VENEZUELA - AVES & ROQUES

IMRAY

D22

VENEZUELA - PUNTA AGUIDE TO CABO SAN ROMAN AND ABC ISLANDS

IMRAY

D23

ARUBA AND BONAIRE

IMRAY

D231

CURACAO

IMRAY

D232

Charts are a matter of personal preference. We liked the IMRAY over the others. The Street's guides give you a nice overview of what the various Imray-Iolaire charts cover. In some areas we had overkill. Look at all the ones we had for the Grenadines. Just B3 would have been sufficient.

A little aside. Trinidad & Tobago (two islands, one country) are not signatories of current international copyright law. That means nothing is protected by copyright there. Many cruisers borrow charts from there fellows and have excellent copies made on a fancy Xerox machine at a local drafting company. Very inexpensive (like maybe $2 or $3 each depending on size).

Next will be your cruising guides and other reference books. Here's our list plus some interesting reading.

Cruising guides:

AUTHOR: Van Sant, Bruce.
TITLE: The gentleman's guide to passages south
PUBLISHER: Cruising Guide Publications

AUTHOR: Doyle, Chris.
TITLE: The cruising guide to the Leeward Islands
PUBLISHER: Cruising Guide Publications

AUTHOR: Doyle, Chris.
TITLE: The cruising guide to the Windward Islands
PUBLISHER: Cruising Guide Publications

AUTHOR: Doyle, Chris.
TITLE: A Venezuelan Cruise
PUBLISHER: Cruising Guide Publications
This is not really a cruising guide. It is a description of one cruise Doyle took. I think he has subsequently written a complete guide covering Venezuela

AUTHOR: Scott, Nancy and Simon Scott
TITLE: The cruising guide to the Virgin Islands
PUBLISHER: Cruising Guide Publications

AUTHOR: Street, Donald M.
TITLE: Street's cruising guide to the eastern Caribbean
PUBLISHER: Norton
This is published in volumes and parts. We had all volumes and all parts. Each covers a different area.

AUTHOR: Etheridge, Harry
TITLE: Yachtsman's guide to the Bahamas
PUBLISHER: Tropic Isle Publishers

We also had an old cruising guide to Puerto Rico. It was published by either Tropic Isle Publishers or by Cruising Guide Publications. I'm not sure of the exact title. It is probably out of print now. Maybe someone has written a new one.

Let's talk about cruising guides. My theory is the more the better. Each has a little different perspective and each adds a little more to your knowledge. Remember also that even though a guide will say "1995" much of the data will be several years old. It would be impossible for any author to validate all the data in a guide every year. Businesses come and go. Customs procedures change. Hurricanes move navigational aids. You'll find many "errors" in any cruising guide.

I said early on that even though I recommend Van Sant's book, I would take some issue with it. The book mostly covers getting from Miami to St. Thomas. That's 1400 miles dead to windward. Van Sant proposes a theory of how to beat this. Basically you wait in a spot until a northern front comes through. This causes the winds to clock and gives you a window of one to several days when you will be able to move on down the line. The first problem with this system is that it will take you quite a while to read the signs Bruce talks about to know when the change is coming. The big problem is that in some places this clocking rarely occurs. I remember calculating from the data in the Pilot Charts that some of Bruce's conditions happen fewer than one day per month in some seasons.

So what to do? Bruce's advice will probably keep you from going out when it is dangerous to do so, but you won't be able to hit the perfect weather window. You still gotta sail to windward. Maybe the year we went was just a bad one. You'll find about a 50/50 split on opinions on this guide.

Another thing you have to remember when you read a guide is the author's particular situation. When Don Street says that a harbor is difficult to get in to you must remember he is doing in a boat with no engine.

Biases and being "down island" too long may also affect an author. When Bruce Van Sant says that the Dominican Republic is a wonderful place to re-provision you should know that his wife is from the DR. I remember sitting in Tyrell Bay when a British yacht sailed in from Grenada (only about 35 miles away). They were headed from Tyrell directly to England and had only stopped because Chris Doyle had said that there was a wonderful place to provision there. Doyle's "wonderful place" was stocked about as well as your mom and pop store. Needless to say, the Brits were sorely disappointed. Three weeks of canned beef stew.

Some other reference works we had:

TITLE: Cruising under sail
AUTHOR: Hiscock, Eric
PUBLISHER: Internation Marine

TITLE: Bowditch's Coastal Navigation
AUTHOR: Bowditch, Nathaniel
PUBLISHER: Arco

TITLE: Chapman Piloting Seamanship & Small Boat Handling
AUTHOR: Maloney, Elbert S.
PUBLISHER: Hearst Marine Books

TITLE: Reed's nautical almanac
You probably already know this one. Of course you want the edition that covers eastern US and Caribbean.

TITLE: Weather for the mariner
Very good book on weather forecasting, including how to interpret barometer and sky conditions.

A first aid book. We did NOT get the one that told you how to do amputations! (yuck)

Several books on celestial navigation including almanacs and sight reduction tables.

A book on knots and splices.

TITLE: World radio TV handbook
PUBLISHER: Billboard Publications
This list all radio & TV stations in the world. It's great for finding local stations. It also gives short-wave frequencies for things like VOA and the BBC.

As long as we are doing books, here are some interesting novels set in the Caribbean:

AUTHOR: Wouk, Herman
TITLE: Don't stop the carnival
A funny account of St. Thomas in the 50s.

TITLE: The mouse that roared
I have not read this but it is supposedly an account of Anguilla's "revolution". Sorry but I could not find a complete bibliographic citation.

AUTHOR: Thomas, G. C. H.
TITLE: Ruler in Hiroona.
PUBLISHER: Macmillan Caribbean
You may not appreciate this one until you are well "down island" and have met many characters like those in the book. It's a not very well veiled account of St. Vincent politics. Easily gotten in bookstore in Bequia.

AUTHOR: Michener, James A.
TITLE: Caribbean
PUBLISHER: Ballantine
Typical late Michener, but entertaining because it talks about many of the islands in the eastern Caribbean.

Don't forget to take along some regular tourist guides. You know, like Fodor's or Sierra Club or whatever you like. Once you get to an island you are going to want to explore it.

This will probably get us our first flame, but in our opinion celestial navigation has no place on a cruise such as ours. We did not meet a single person who used it in the Caribbean. I am sure its fine for crossing oceans, but not in the confined spaces and short passages that we did.

Of course we did take a sextant (a lovely Weems & Plath Jim was given as a farewell gift from his Cleveland employer) and all the associated reference materials, but more for entertainment than anything else. If you have always wanted to learn celestial navigation, your trip will be the perfect place for it. Get yourself one of those practical books like "Celestial Navigation for Idiots". William Buckley's videotape is a riot. Mr. Buckley says celestial navigation is the act of assuming where you are and then proving yourself wrong!

Those of you who do not care to read my ruminations on celestial navigation are welcome to skip the rest of this section, but I thought some of you might be interested.

One needs to know two things to precisely place yourself on the earth: longitude and latitude. Since at least the 13th century mariners have been able to determine their latitude accurately. In the northern hemisphere all they had to do was measure the altitude of the North Star above the horizon. A direct calculation of latitude could be made form this angle (no tables were even needed). South of the equator things were a little more complicated since there is no southern equivalent of the North Star. However, this problem was solved by using the sun and a set of declination tables. The printing of these tables was one of the first uses of Gutenberg's printing press.

Not knowing their longitude in crossing the Atlantic was not such a big deal for the Europeans. Let's say you wanted to sail from England to Antigua. You know the latitude of Barbados is 17 degrees north. You simply leave England heading southwest until you get to the 17 parallel. You then head due west until you get to Antigua. Any slight error in your latitude isn't fatal because you've got to hit some island in the West Indies. The Pacific was much different since a slight error in latitude could mean you miss the island you are heading for and there isn't another one for thousands of miles.

To know one's longitude it is necessary to be able to measure time accurately. Until the 1760s there were no time pieces accurate enough. In 1713-14 the British Parliament offered a prize for the first person who could accurately determine longitude. The prize was 20,000 pounds (probably close to $10,000,000 today). I believe the accuracy test required a voyage from England to the West Indies and back with a cumulative error of no more than 30 seconds of longitude. The prize was won by a John Harrison who, of course, spent the rest of his life fighting the government for his money.

Modern celestial navigation works as follows: You use your sextant to measure the height above the horizon of any one of some 57 celestial bodies (the sun, planets and a bunch of stars) and you note the exact time. You then use a nautical almanac and sight reduction tables to calculate a line of position. In other words, the only place you could have been to see sun at this angle at this time on this day would be on this LOP (line of position). You do the same thing for another celestial body (or the same one a little later); plot this LOP; and voila! where the two LOPs intersect is where you are.

The most difficult part of all this is taking the sight. You must hold the sextant level, and keep the horizon and the celestial object steady as you measure the angle. Doing this at sea on a small boat is not easy. You also have to be able to see the horizon and the celestial object clearly. No haze or cloudy days allowed.

You will find people who will swear how accurately they can find their position with celestial navigation. Maybe so. The best I have ever done is a six mile error, and that was standing on dry land!

Here's another story. My younger brother graduated from the Naval Academy in 1974. By then (over 20 years ago), Annapolis had stopped teaching celestial navigation. They taught the midshipmen to do the sight reductions but not to take the sights. During one stint at sea my brother asked an old NCO to teach him to take sights. The best that even this NCO could do was a one mile error and that was from the deck of a carrier!

I do believe that the Coast Guard Academy still teaches celestial navigation on "Eagle", but it's probably more a "rite of passage" than a practical skill.

You decide. As you can see I have no opinion on the subject!

We had intended this article to include discussions of electronics and communication as well as navigation. However it's already so long that we decided to break it into two. Electronics and communications next time.

Happy Thanksgiving

Jim & Diane

PS For all you ocean sailing types who think Great Lakes sailing is a piece of cake; today (November 10) is the 20th anniversary of the wreck of the "Edmund Fitzgerald". May they rest in peace.

Send comments to: jkbarrentine@earthlink.net


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This page last changed on: Monday, June 02, 2003