January – RYA training upheaval, and ending an electronic chart nonsense

The small craft navigation conference in Cowes at the end of January heard that the RYA is finally promising to overhaul its outdated Day Skipper and Yachtmaster shore-based courses.

The conference was also told that there is to be a concerted attempt to abolish that annoying legal disclaimer on all our electronic charts that they are “not for navigation.”  As soon as we switch on a pop-up appears with this message, often with a line underneath saying that only paper charts must be used, which of course almost everybody ignores.

First, the RYA: any novice has noticed for years when boarding a cruising or racing boat that most navigation is electronic and paper charts are relegated to backup. Surveys of skippers have proved that. 

The approach of RYA shore-based courses has been like getting into a car with full satnav, and being told not to switch it on but instead to dig out the AA road map from under the back seat.

After a 2 year gap without a manager for the Day Skipper and Yachtmaster shore-based courses, an executive has now been hired, and the promise is that course improvements will be a high priority this year. A better integration of training for electronic charting and traditional navigation is long overdue. More on that another time.

Second, that warning notice on our charts: it has become a joke, but it’s no laughing matter. It reflects some real quality and standards issues affecting leisure charts, which is why official hydrographic bodies will not licence their data to publishers unless they use the disclaimer. This is also the legal position, because under international maritime law only official charts from hydrographic offices are recognised.

Many fishing boats use the same charts as yachts

That’s not a problem to worry about if you are a leisure sailor on a modest size yacht. But it is an issue for large numbers of small commercial vessels, including fishing boats and indeed for sail training yachts and large private yachts.

They are all under that same restrictive legal umbrella, but they mostly ignore it and use cheap leisure electronic charts anyway, because official electronic charts and equipment are so expensive. In theory they are supposed to navigate only on paper, but the law is honoured only in the breach.

The Royal Institute of Navigation, whose small craft group organised the conference, is now leading an attempt to get something done about it.

The plan is to seek minimum standards for leisure charts and chart plotters. This would be in the hope of improving them to the point at which there can be some form of official recognition, and removal of the warning.

The RIN has involved the RYA, the Cruising Association, the Marine and Coastguard Agency, the UKHO, the Marine Accidents Board, the RNLI, chart publishers, equipment firms and various other interests. The focus is a new Pleasure Vessel Navigation Systems Working Group, reporting to the UK Safety of Navigation Committee, which is under the MCA.

There is no plan to set detailed specifications – attempts to do that for the fishing industry in the UK and similar projects in Denmark and Italy failed. Instead, standards would be developed setting out what the charts should do and the functions equipment must contain in order to be approved. Manufacturers and publishers would find their own way of meeting these standards.

For example, some measure of underlying accuracy should be available, as it is on official ship charts and on Admiralty paper charts, where survey age is shown. You then know if the last survey was in 1930 or thereabouts (or indeed 1849, a contributory cause to an oil rig grounding under tow in the Orkneys in 2006).

One proposal is a much simpler traffic light system, with the colours related to the reliability of the information, including survey date.

Other issues include clear separation between crowd-sourced feedback and more rigorous survey information, which are in danger of getting mixed up in some chart brands.

Updating should also be reliable and easy. Shore features should be shown clearly on all charts, and there should be ways of drawing bearing lines from them, measured by the navigator and plotted onto screens to give a traditional fix.

Ideally, all electronic chartplotters should have a common default method of operation so anybody can switch boats and still work the plotter. That is the case with ship electronic systems, but it’s a long way from being taken seriously by leisure chartplotter makers.

The objective is to make leisure chart standards high enough to allow that disclaimer to be removed – and while it may be asking too much for international authorities to accept it, perhaps it will be known instead as the RIN standard.

It will not be simple or quick to achieve, and there are legal obstacles, too – where would liability end up if a faulty leisure chart causes an accident? But that warning as we switch on is a technical issue of real importance.

After a scrub

Meanwhile, on Spring Fever: We took the boat out of the water at the Kingston yard in Cowes for an insurance survey at the end of January. The boat turns out to be basically fine, but we’ve decided to preempt what will probably be an instruction from the  insurance company anyway: we’ll replace the standing rigging, now in its 14th year.

Coming soon on your phone – one metre accuracy

It seems that while my phone is accurate to an error of considerably less than 10 metres, the industry is heading to even better precision of a tenth of that level, and soon. This post looks at why that means satellite accuracy on all devices including smartphones is reaching levels where there are diminishing returns for small boat sailors.

In general, 5 metre satellite accuracy has been available on smartphones for a considerable time now. I give links at the end to industry, US government, academic and consumer articles that give more detail on how accuracy has been developing  (and see also my earlier post ‘and a phone to steer her by’).

One of the secrets of the top performers such as the high-end Samsung phones, which can achieve 2 metres, is that they now have dual frequency satellite aerials so they can make the best use of the latest improvements not only in the US GPS, but the Russian Glonass, European Galileo and Chinese Beidou satellite systems. Nowadays, phones will often have as many as 40 satellites in the sky from which to choose the best signals.

Continue reading “Coming soon on your phone – one metre accuracy”

…and a phone to steer her by

Mobiles have had a bad press as navigational tools, but if I were forced to choose one single piece of electronics to take to sea it would be my phone. That’s not a popular view among professionals.

Instructors, coastguards and rescue services learn of many cases where boat owners, especially of powerful motor yachts and RIBs, set off for the open sea with nothing beyond a chart app on a mobile phone, and no knowledge of the underlying skills needed to navigate safely. For the Royal Yachting Association, mobiles are well down the list of recommended priorities, because of the risk that they will be used badly. Textbooks give stern warnings that you must not use them for navigation.

Continue reading “…and a phone to steer her by”

Yachtmaster book out

The new, updated and expanded edition of Pass Your Yachtmaster is in the bookshops. It’s the best primer around for the RYA sailing qualification, and the only one with jokes – the serious stuff by David Fairhall and myself is leavened with lots of hilarious cartoons about sailing by the late Mike Peyton.

There’s a new chapter on electronic charts and fresh material on weather forecasting, safety equipment and other aspects of sailing offshore that have been changing in recent years as the technology improves.

Continue reading “Yachtmaster book out”

Back to the future – electronics on board

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.

Continue reading “Back to the future – electronics on board”

Satellite accuracy on a mobile

How accurate is the position calculated by your smartphone? The Royal Institute of Navigation is sceptical. Its new book on electronic navigation for leisure sailors says: “At sea, mobile phone positioning uncertainty will typically be several hundred meters or more, which may be enough to put us into danger”.

I am looking for some proper studies on this issue, because I am sceptical about that statement. In the meantime it’s easy to check what your phone tells you about its own location performance when it relies only on satellite signals.

Continue reading “Satellite accuracy on a mobile”

November – the sextant survives in the navy, & joy in little jobs

I learnt this month that Royal Navy officers still have to learn and practice astro-navigation with a sextant, despite the incredible array of technology at their disposal.

I was at a Zoom meeting with Rear Admiral Peter Sparkes, the UK National Hydrographer, organised by the Suffolk branch of the Cruising Association.

Continue reading “November – the sextant survives in the navy, & joy in little jobs”

The last navigator

Do you really prefer hitech modern satellite navigational gadgets to the romance of the stars and traditional methods, asks a friend? Actually, I think the question raises another: is there really a low tech traditional method in our modern sense of it? For most people, tradition means compass, sextant and chart.

A Micronesian sailing canoe, from The Last Navigator

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been catching up with a second hand copy of The Last Navigator by Stephen D Thomas, printed in 1987, which explains exactly how Polynesian navigators have been achieving remarkable feats of accuracy for thousands of years before even the compass was invented, let alone the sextant. Continue reading “The last navigator”

Relearning old navigation lessons

Two letters in the latest issue of the excellent Cruising Association magazine* claim it is now safe to rely entirely on electronic charts because backups to the boat’s main chartplotter are so cheaply available. You can leave your old paper charts abandoned in the bottom of a locker somewhere, the argument goes.

However, while researching updates for the yachtmaster book I mentioned last month, I’ve been re-reading intensively about old fashioned navigation techniques I learnt a long time ago, some of which were beginning to fade from memory. It has reinforced for me how important it is to avoid total reliance on electronics and have a portfolio of navigation skills including the old ones. Continue reading “Relearning old navigation lessons”

February – averting satellite disaster

The British government turns out to have been ahead of the game on the  satellite risks I mentioned last month, with a £36 million programme just announced to  prevent navigational satellite failures damaging the economy by as much as £1 billion a day. It is feared that the entire country has become over-dependent on a handful of satellite systems.

Emergency services, the energy grid, mobile phones, Satnav, broadcasting and other communications, the Stock Exchange and an array of other activities all rely heavily on the super-accurate timing provided now by navigational satellites such as GPS and similar systems. There are life-threatening risks from failure, says the government.An image of a third generation Lockheed Martin GPS satellite

The new investment is in a National Timing Centre to create a network of super-accurate atomic clocks around the UK, accessed through ground-based communications, so that the economy will no longer be over-reliant on timing from GNSS signals from the sky.

GNSS is the term that embraces the US  GPS, the first system, Russia’s GLONASS satellites, Europe’s new Galileo and also a rapidly developing Chinese system.

Galileo failed completely for a while last year during its start up phase, because of operator errors, and there are now many examples of interference with GNSS systems and malicious ‘spoofing’, in which navigation instruments are fooled into thinking they are somewhere else. The heart of all navigation by satellite is accurate timing, without which positions cannot be fixed.

Continue reading “February – averting satellite disaster”

January – satellite scares, and getting ready for Biscay

At the Royal Institute of Navigation’s small boat conference in Lymington earlier this month, I learnt a lot about  new risks of error  in satellite navigation : I did not know, for example, that it is possible with quite cheap local equipment to fool the GPS on a plane, ship or even a missile into thinking it is somewhere other than its real position.

There are now tens of thousands of reported incidents of errors, deliberate, accidental or of unknown cause, with a substantial number of them unsurprisingly in sensitive areas such as the Gulf, and the Black Sea near Ukraine, suspected to be hostile activity.

Reports of accidental errors include a couple of local failures when US naval vessels arrived in the port of San Diego, apparently forgetting to switch off unspecified electronic equipment, which interfered with satellite-derived positions for miles around.

Continue reading “January – satellite scares, and getting ready for Biscay”

Is your chart relying on an 1860 survey?

Footnote to cruising the Scillies: piloting there is a reminder of the importance of proper Admiralty charts, because they show the age of the surveys on which they are based, unlike any of the proprietary ‘vector’ charts available on chartplotters.

The Scillies is a mixed area from this point of view. Some of the surveys of the area were last done in 1860 – 1904 by lead line, probably from boats carried on naval survey ships and rowed up and down in straight lines quite a long way apart, so rocks could easily be missed. Other parts of the islands were surveyed at a range of different dates in the 20th century. Continue reading “Is your chart relying on an 1860 survey?”