Back to the future

I was intrigued by the equipment list below, which is more than three decades old, because it was a reminder of how long we have been arguing about the risks and rewards of electronic navigation. I found the list in some old files I was checking last year for the sixth edition of Pass Your Yachtmaster by David Fairhall and Mike Peyton, which I was commissioned to update by Adlard Coles*.

A 1989 list of yacht electronics talked about at the Boat Show

The list was part of an article I produced for the Guardian newspaper about electronics for small boat navigation, under the headline ‘And a satellite to steer her by’, researched by talking to manufacturers due to appear at that year’s London Boat Show. I had forgotten all about it.

The debate about how far one should rely on electronics rather than traditional navigation was clearly well under way then and is, of course, far from over. I wrote: ‘Because of advancing technology and falling prices, navigation equipment is available which five years ago was seen to similar accuracy only on the flight deck of a jumbo jet. Today it is even possible for a yachtsman to key in his destination on his electronic position finding equipment, link it to an autopilot, switch on the radar alarm which tells him he is is about to hit something, and sleep, or cook, or read……the old guard mutters about sailors who no longer know how to navigate if the battery goes flat.’

I suggested sarcastically that an alarm clock would be useful for waking up when he gets there, and added that traditionalists were right that new electronic aids were dangerous if not used with discretion. But I also made the key point that new technology makes navigation more accurate, swifter, less stressful and ultimately safer when used with older techniques.

You could take a similar paragraph straight out of today’s RYA training manuals. The organisation rightly insists that traditional techniques should always be part of advanced yachting qualifications, but is clearly having to work quite hard to hold the line on that and convince everyone with a seagoing boat to learn both traditional and electronic navigation.

In fact, the RYA’s target is less the navigators of sailing yachts, who mostly don’t go far without knowing a lot about what they’re doing. The bigger concern is people such as those who buy fast, new motor yachts and cross the English Channel at high speed with no more than a chart on a phone to navigate – widespread and often dangerous habits, according to a senior RYA official when I spoke to him about training courses last year. Users of fast RIBs are another big source of concern about lack of background skills.

See the links below for a more readable version of this article

Nearly everything in the list above is a version of what we focus on now: chartplotter, navigation computer, Satnav receiver, EPIRB emergency beacon, electronic compass, interfaces from instruments to the autopilot, Navtex, and of course radar, which by 1989 was cheap and small enough for thousands of small yachts to have fitted already.

I had forgotten that a pre-GPS SatNav was already sold more than 30 years ago to ordinary cruising sailors. So was a chartplotter, with charts on an electronic chip (at a high price in inflation-adjusted money, but at a cash amount quite similar to today’s prices). The charts were sketchy on screen and hard to read, and the software clunky, so they were greeted with deep suspicion, but they were the beginning of the drift away from paper.

Then, there was good reason to be sceptical about Satnav, because a fix was only available when a satellite passed over, which was every few hours. But I did mention that the US GPS system was coming in, a vast improvement, but at the time beyond most budgets – though I quoted a forecast that in less than a year prices would plunge to under £1,500 for a handheld, and I think that came true with the Magellan sets.

There are only two mentions of soon-to-be obsolete equipment – a radar direction finder and a Decca Navigator set, the second of which became small and cheap enough for ordinary yachts early in the 1980s, a step towards making radio direction fixes redundant. (RDF sets were horrible and inaccurate – there was nothing more calculated to make me sick than wearing headphones to measure the compass direction of weak morse code signals broadcast by lighthouses).

Decca has long gone, but Loran, the other ground-based locator (which I didn’t mention in the article because it was much less used by UK sailors) is having a renaissance in new digital form, eLoran. Governments increasingly see the need for an emergency terrestrial backup for satellite navigation. See this earlier post

In the same folder I found an Observer article, headlined ‘Chip to shore’, in which I wrote about even more advanced electronic navigation equipment then coming into use. The piece was also part of newspaper coverage of the 1989 London Boat show. It described a £60,000 satellite-based navigation and weather routing system being trialled on a yacht in the Whitbread Round the World Race. It used both the old Satnav and the new GPS satellites.

Apple and Toshiba computers optimised the course for wind and waves, using forecast data fed from satellites combined with performance feedback from the boat’s instruments. At the time, it was planned to develop the system for weather routing of commercial shipping and aircraft, but it was also hoped that prices would eventually come down far enough for it to be used on ordinary yachts.

They certainly have. Firms like PredictWind are now marketing weather routing apps for cruising sailors to use on laptops and tablets at a few tens of pounds a month, which even I could afford, if I wanted to use them, which I don’t. But 32 years ago such technology was the preserve of hotshot racers.

I wrote in the Observer that traditionalists were still deeply suspicious, but that there was little doubt that electronics and computers made yachting safer. Henrik Langhoff, responsible for the electronics on the Whitbread yacht, said wind and waves would remain more powerful than technology could ever be but ‘in the long run, you must still use your head’.

More about electronics on board in the Observer

The 1989 Guardian article was one of a series I did about sailing at a time when the paper briefly had a revived enthusiasm for it, something that came and went over the years – the Guardian once employed Arthur Ransome, and very much later it was Sir Francis Chichester’s first sponsor. 1989 was also the year of the Guardian’s Fastnet Challenge, dreamt up by David Fairhall and myself – you can read about it here in Ted Heath, the Guardian and the Fastnet mutiny of ’89. David was the reporter assigned to that first Chichester sponsorship.

The  Observer article I mentioned was written under a pseudonym because at that time my contract at the Guardian did not allow me to write for another title. The sailing baton was taken up by The Independent in the early 1990s when I moved there, and they commissioned me to write a series about leisure sailing in my spare time from my day job on the staff. After that, my brief but enjoyable part-time career as a newspaper yachting writer tailed off, and funnily enough so did both papers’ interest in the subject. (I noticed a recent revival at the Guardian when staffer Susan Smilley quit, took off single handed to live on her Nicholson 26 in the Mediterranean, and is now writing some lovely pieces for the paper about her experiences. Search her name on the Guardian website or for smillieonsea on Instagram).

For the record, here are more readable scans of ‘And a satellite to steer her by’ and ‘Chip to shore’ and I’ve also listed here the articles that the Guardian yacht’s scribe Mike White, later political editor, wrote about the 1989 Fastnet Challenge; here is a list of some of my newspaper contributions.

*Text written and delivered last June – still waiting to see the result. Watch this space.


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