Life on the Loop
Chart Plotters & other Bits of Magic
Parallel parking used to be part of your driver’s license test. Now you can do it with a touch of a button. It used to be that an older brother or Dad, (if Mom wasn’t looking), would let you get behind the wheel on a back road or in a field when you were 13 or 14 to start learning to drive – unless you were brought up on a farm, where driving was already a chore by 14. It used to be everyone could drive a car with a manual transmission.
Paper charts have gone the way of manual transmissions. Although regulations still call for them, few boaters carry paper charts, much less the rules, dividers or knowledge to manually chart a course or skill to follow it. The one Coast Guard inspection I was boarded for in Port Royal Sound, South Carolina didn’t even mention them.
Modern navigation is now through a Chart Plotter. Your AIS, radar, sonar, auto pilot, and satellite weather all connect through the chart plotter. The resulting maze of menus can be frustratingly frustrating. The only people I’ve met who think they’re user friendly are the ones selling them.
Menus often suffer from the software they try to organize, evolving so fast that nobody takes the time to debug thoroughly or rethink the big picture. If chart plotters are new to you, learning to use one effectively will be your biggest Learning Curve challenge. Information overload is an issue. A false sense of security from a bunch of electronics winking and blinking at you can lead to trouble.
That’s not to diminish a chart plotter’s importance or usefulness. To be honest, few Loopers would make it without one or at least some navigation app with GPS. I’d like to think I could because I grew up looking for the buoys my Dad would plot on paper charts, but smart enough to not test the idea.
There’s a lot of debate about how much electronics you need. I had all the toys (except an auto pilot) but seldom used anything other than my chart plotter, VHF and sonar. There are two important things to remember: no amount of electronics replace common sense and all of them take practice.
Master the basics: plotting a course is a necessity and knowing where you are at a glance is downright useful. But don’t become overly dependent on your electronics. Auto Pilots and a chart plotter capable of plotting its own course can make things too easy. You'll be lost if Mr. Murphy shows up unexpectedly, especially if you left your common sense at the dock.
I watched a go fast luxury trawler nearly run up the ass of a slow moving catamaran on Lake Michigan, I’m sure because it was on auto pilot and nobody was paying attention despite the catamaran’s increasingly urgent calls over the VHF. It was close enough that I cut speed to match the catamaran in case there was a collision.
If, or more accurately, when, you call for support, make sure you’ve downloaded the latest update/fix. It’s the first thing they’ll ask. They’re certainly aware of (even if they don’t admit) problems and will not be excited about spending time with you on something that’s already fixed.
VFH Radios have been around a long time and are a necessity, along with your chart plotter. You need to know protocols, what channels to use and overcome any shyness about using them.
Around the Loop they’re broadcasts like Roy's Net Cruiser (Ch 71 @ 9 am) in Little Current, Ontario to catch up on news, weather and where your boating buddies are. The relatively isolated area around Little Current doesn’t have much Wi-Fi, so it was both useful and fun to listen and participate. You can even join Roy for a morning cup of coffee at the Anchor Inn while he’s producing it.
But some Captains go overboard with their radio, especially when a tug and barge is involved. Tug Captains are professionals and to varying degrees, tolerant of recreation boats and our chatter. They don’t want to wind up in Admiralty Court, so they’ll talk to you, especially if they’re bored, but most would probably prefer that you just stay out of their way, which is usually pretty easy to do.
If a channel is the least bit narrow, I simply pull out of it as much as depth allows and putz or even stop, until the tug gets by. They’re the ones trying to make a living and to be blunt, they’re a lot bigger than you or me. Watching a tug pushing 30-40 barges is watching a real Captain at work.
It’s common to overhear tow barge captains setting up passes with each other over the VHF; don’t hesitate to communicate if you feel it necessary. But very few recreation boat/barge passes need radio traffic – patience and common sense are the real requirements.
Power management is important on a boat because you never want to lose the ability to start your engine(s) – kind of like leaving something on in your car and not being able to start it in the morning, except that on your boat there may not be a friend around with long enough jumper cables. You also don’t want to lose your electronics, refrigeration or certain cooktops, which all have safety cut offs if power gets low enough to damage them.
All trawlers have diesel generators to recharge their bank of house batteries. It’s a little trickier on a smaller outboard powered boat like L.T. with just one house battery and no generator. I ruined an expensive battery and had some tense discussions with my diesel cooktop (which has a convoluted reboot process) before I got the hang of it – something you really don’t want to go through on any boat.
Shore power at a marina is great but if you want to anchor out for more than a night or two or are on a wall with no power, you need to be able to manage your power effectively. I carried a small portable power generator and an extra can of gas (which doubled as emergency fuel) to power it – something generally frowned upon on boats as a fire and carbon monoxide hazard. Solar panels and/or another house battery or two are on my wish list to help with this issue. But L.T. has to find a place to put them and I have to do a lot more studying. Neither of us are holding our breath.
I worked to keep this Magic story basic, more to get you ready to learn than to tell you everything you need to know, which I don’t know anyway. If some of it doesn’t make sense now, don’t get excited. You’ll have your ah-ha moments as you experience them, maybe quicker than me because you’ve had a head’s up. Embrace your Learning Curve. It’s part of what makes the Great Loop rewarding, interesting, and occasionally exciting.