GPS – what did we do without it?

One of the greatest gifts to the cruising sailor was the introduction of affordable GPS units. How many wannabe cruisers headed off into the wide blue yonder because they now had a reliable means of fixing their position is anyone’s guess but I’ll bet it’s a large number.

It was President Ronald Reagan who made the decision to open up the Global Positioning System for civilian use after the USSR accidentally shot down a Korean Air Lines passenger plane that had strayed into restricted territory.

The full constellation of GPS satellites wasn’t in place until 1994 but I got my first GPS set in 1991 and from that time on my sextant and Loran receiver were condemned to the scrap heap.

Initially, accuracy was restricted to around 100 metres but with the turning off of Selective Availability (SA) in 2000, accuracy for civilian users improved to 10 metres. To know your position to a boat length was mind-boggling.

The Global Positioning System spawned an industry that has for more than twenty years churned out devices to receive, interpret and extrapolate the data from orbiting satellites.
Palm-sized handheld GPS units with their own batteries free us from the worry of losing our way in the event of catastrophic electrical failure on the boat.

We no longer have to take the written lat/long information from the screen and plot it on a chart; we have chart plotters that draw the pictures for us. Going to sea without paper charts was unthinkable just a few years ago but now it’s, if not commonplace, a growing trend.

We’d be lost without GPS.