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Over reliance on best marine GPS too may risk safety

Members of the search and rescue (SAR) community are becoming increasingly concerned with the over reliance of boaters on best marine GPS navigation technology to verify their vessel position. Reliance on a single source for navigational data can lead to severe consequences for boating safety if that resource fails.

Modern best marine GPS navigational systems for boaters incorporate plotters that utilize electronic versions of navigation charts and provide a wealth of data for the boater during a voyage. Effective use of best marine GPS technology depends on a mariner having a solid foundation in the fundamentals of coastal navigation. While the use of compass, divider, and paper chart may strike many as archaic, this is a proven technology that works even after the power fails.

Here are a few example incidents were the over reliance on best marine GPS navigation by a mariner has put people at risk.

Essex Coast Over reliance on best marine GPS too may risk safety

Yacht Aground Off the Essex Coast

Operating in heavy rain under a force 8 gale, the 25-foot yacht Nelly became disoriented off the coast of Essex, England between the mouths of the Blackwater and Crouch Rivers. The vessel’s crew has depending on a single best marine GPS navigation unit for position information. When this equipment failed, they ran aground on a beach experiencing severe breaking surf that battered the vessel. Rescue craft could not reach the Nelly due to the extreme surf conditions and the crew had to be winched off the vessel by helicopter.

In press release issued by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency of the United Kingdom, Thames Coastguard Watch Manager Mark Baker says, “This incident highlights the risk of relying solely on a single best marine GPS navigation unit. A vessel’s position and track should be regularly plotted on a chart and a backup navigation system employed during an offshore passage.”

Navigation Beacon in Auckland Harbor Over reliance on best marine GPS too may risk safety

Collision with the Illiomana Navigation Beacon in Auckland Harbor

Two boaters were convicted of causing unnecessary danger to persons and or property in an Auckland, New Zealand court after their vessel struck a lighted navigational buoy returning to the harbor. The power vessel Chardonnay hit the lighted beacon, with a rated visibility of five nautical miles at high speed, injuring all aboard the boat.

During sentencing, the judge in the case pointed out that the skipper of the vessel knew his GPS equipment was unreliable and that there was no paper chart of the area onboard. Recreational boating managers in the region stressed the importance of not relying on GPS alone for navigation at the conclusion of this incident.

Learn About Coastal Navigation

Being a safe boater means learning to be a more professional mariner. Take time in the off-season to complete a course in basic coastal navigation. Learn to plot vessel positions on a paper chart and always carry a current version of the chart covering operational areas onboard. The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary offers a program called the Weekend Navigator that’s a good starting point for learning about the subject.

Over reliance on best marine GPS Over reliance on best marine GPS too may risk safety

What is GPS Technology

GPS is an acronym standing for Global Positioning System. It is a space age technology based on radio communications with multiple satellites in a geo-synchronous orbits. A GPS Receiver picks up a signal from as many satellites as possible and calculates its distance from each of those satellites. Using a complex algorithm it can then pinpoint the location, altitude, and other information of the receiver.

GPS was originally designed by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1973 for military applications, but has since been declassified for civilian uses. The US system consists of 27 satellites in orbit 12,000 miles above the earth. Twenty-four of these are in orbits calculated to give coverage of at least four satellites to any point on earth at any given time, and the other three are reserves to be flown into position to replace any malfunctioning unit. It is a very sophisticated system. The Russian government also has its own independent GPS system, and several European States are collaborating to launch a third.

The satellites send out radio signals which can be received and timed by ground equipment (which has now reached the size of a small handheld device thanks to micro-circuitry). The time it takes the signal, which is a radio wave traveling at the speed of light, to reach the receiver tells the computer the distance from each of the satellites. By triangulating these distances it can determine exact information on the location of the receiver.

By imposing the latitude, longitude, and other information obtained from the satellites on a map stored in its memory the average handheld receiver of today can display its location on maps, even street maps complete with what stores or other businesses were there when it was programmed or updated. It is the navigation tool of the 21st Century, and as long as the receiver has a source of electric power, and the orbits of the solar powered satellites do not decay and send them burning back through the atmosphere without being replaced it is the best system ever devised. Smart navigators are still, however, familiar with older methods based on the compass and sextant, because there is always a chance of electric power failure on a boat or vehicle. This low tech backup is very important for solo and family sailors on long voyages.

It is a huge leap forward in navigation technology, and promises to change our world yet again. With computers that know exactly where they are at all times to within inches there is a tremendous opportunity for implementing robotic technologies that were previously only science fiction. Only time well tell how much it will change our world, and what form those changes will take. But I predict that if I live to see the year 2050 that there will be buses, trains, trucks, and a lot of other vehicles operating completely autonomously on set programs