You know what the “Bubble” is, right?  Are you one of those people who spends every waking moment connected to an iPhone, or your computer, or your GPS? What would happen if your ever-connected Bubble burst, and you no longer had access to these things? Could you find the nearest Starbucks on your own? Or find your way home in the dark? Or navigate to your destination, in a foggy ocean?

I was interested to read recently that the Naval Academy is again teaching celestial navigation – you, know – for “just-in-case,” when the Navy’s Bubble crashes. (While we’re on this topic, you do travel with a map in your car, right? – and an actual, old-fashioned compass on your boat, right? – and you know how to use them – right?) And did you know that you, even now, are in danger of your “dependable” technology rendering your use of natural clues obsolete? It’s true! In fact, McGill University researchers have presented studies that suggest “. . . [D]epending on GPS to navigate may have a negative effect on brain function, especially on the hippocampus, which is involved in memory and navigation processes.” A dirty little Darwinian trick? Who will survive when the satellites all go dark? (I’m of the opinion that anyone born before 1970 will have a distinct advantage, but perhaps that’s a story for another blog post.)

As for sailing, have you ever really thought about how Team Vestas, with the most technologically advanced systems onboard, managed to hit a reef? Well, it’s a little disturbing, really. Those charts you take for granted? It turns out that they may not always be accurate. I read with interest Elaine Bunting’s piece about the Team Vestas grounding in Yachting World, in which she asks: “How could a yacht bristling with technology hit a known reef?” The story begs the following questions:

  1. Does the GPS really know EXACTLY where you are?
  2. Or EXACTLY where the stuff is you don’t want to hit?

On both counts, apparently not, or at least not all the time. Bunting notes that “The information used for charts may still largely be based on leadline surveys from the sailing ship days of the 19th Century.” And further, she says that the data has not always been updated everywhere, and thus can vary from chart to chart. And that the zoom levels on electronic charts can be dangerously misleading.

The whole notion of people blindly following their electronic aids is a frightening one. For example, did you know that there is such a thing as “radar assisted collision?” Or “GPS assisted collision?” If you don’t believe me, you’d better check out Rick Spilman’s blog post for more on those topics. Imagine giant tankers running into one another or aground – while using GPS or radar. Talk about an epic fail. Spilman writes: “The underlying problem is that we all seem to place more faith than we should in the magic of GPS. GPS provides the illusion of precision, which makes independent confirmation of one’s position seem superfluous. Old concepts like maintaining adequate sea-room seem antiquated and unnecessary.”

I wrote a blog post a while back that talked about “the old ways,” those time honored tricks of the trade passed down through the generations, when people relied on their wits and experience in the natural world to help them survive. Because the old timers lived in much closer harmony with the earth, they, out of necessity, perfected the intricate tricks of self sufficiency, through the skills and knowledge they acquired over years and years of trial and error. And they passed that precious knowledge along to their children and their grandchildren. I fear that the advent of GPS and other such “aids” have broken that continuum of knowledge and lore. For generations and generations before us, getting where you wanted to be depended upon looking to the sun, the moon, and the stars — those constant objects in the sky — and using them to understand how to find your way. “Dead reckoning” (positioning oneself using time, direction, and speed) and celestial navigation (the use of “sights” between celestial bodies and the visible horizon to locate one’s position) have now largely given way to GPS. Few people know how to navigate using either method anymore. Elaine Bunting said it this way: “But for all that, even brandishing every known source of information, seamanlike . . . navigation depends on the very same techniques that were used in all times gone by: the sun overhead and behind you and someone high up in a conning position applying the Mk 1 eyeball to assess what is really beneath and ahead. And the inclination to use every sense, including sound and feel, and to turn back if uncertain. The biggest danger is certainty.”

Well said, Ms. Bunting. I, for one, think it’s high time for us all to go back and learn to use the sun, the moon, and the stars, and the old, more vigilant ways of finding one’s way.

If your Bubble bursts, will you be ready?

Deborah Bennett Elfers
I was practically born on a boat, though on a working lobster boat rather than a sailboat. In my early days, I sailed quite a lot on a Sunfish, but not very elegantly, as in our little neighborhood “fleet,” the boat was primarily used as a weapon in a wildly popular game of “kill the other guy!” Who could have imagined way back then, that one day I’d become so passionate about all things sailing?
Deborah Bennett Elfers
Deborah Bennett Elfers

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