GPS and all that..

There’s no doubt in my mind that the great emancipation of the cruising sailor came with the introduction of affordable GPS units. How many wannabe cruisers headed off to 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 huge 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 my Loran receiver were condemned to the scrap heap. Initially, accuracy was restricted to around 100m but with the turning off of Selective Availability in 2000 accuracy, even for civilian users, improved to10m. When we installed our first unit it was the time of the Gulf War and, because the military were using civilian GPS units in the desert, SA was disabled – I remember commenting that our new GPS receiver didn’t only show which marina we were in, but which berth!

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.

But that concept, going to sea without paper charts, is the biggie for me. I know it’s here, I know people who do it. I just can’t get my head round it. When I’m on passage I love working on the paper chart, plotting my position on it, making notes on it, seeing where I’ve been and where I’m going. There’s a satisfying tactility to it that I just don’t get from an electronic chart on a plotter. 

I guess I’m just old fashioned.