Coastal Navigation Tips

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What is a sailing chart?

Learn How to Use Sailing Charts

Today, more than 98 percent of the nation's cargo is carried by waterborne transportation, and a good deal of it is potentially hazardous. In fact, this has always been the case for the U.S. and its foreign trade. For this reason, nautical charts were developed. The sea might look fine on the surface but how is the floor configured? How deep is the water at a particular point? Is there a danger to navigation lurking just ahead?

These charts can now be used by sailors to ensure safe and economic travel by shortest and safest route. A sailing chart is a working document. It is like a road map of the sea. It will indicate the nature and form of the coast, which is absolutely essential if you have planned your own sailing trip. A good sailing chart will also show you characteristics of the Earth's magnetism that might affect your boat navigation.

Sailing charts come in a variety of forms including paper, digital and satellite images. A good sailing chart should incorporate standard symbols that, like sailing lingo, you will have to learn to apply proper boat navigation. Some charts are available online. If you buy a paper chart, get a waterproof one that is laminated. Some special organization tubes are available store multiple maps. You should also buy a chart key so that you can easily determine what you are reading on a sailing map while you are still learning all the new terminology and language of sailing.

Is GPS technology enough to plot my sailing trip?

Global Positioning Systems and Sailing

There's been a lot of talk lately about Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and its ability to guide us when driving, on foot and even on a sailboat. But, what is GPS and how does it work? Should sailors use it? Are there deficiencies to this new type of technology?

GPS systems use a constellation of Earth-orbiting satellites to determine and plot a location. This type of technology was once only used by the military but has been opened up to the private sector. A GPS receiver can tell you the latitude, longitude and altitude of your current position. To make use of a GPS system even easier, most receivers can download this data into a map format. GPS systems can also trace your path as you move; that's why they are now being used by sailors. If you run into trouble sailing and need to call for help, a GPS system can help rescuers get to you.

But as a sailor, you should be aware that GPS systems can fail. For this reason, some experienced sailors believe that when sailing you should not rely solely on sailing GPS technology. Sailors have been using nautical charts and other sail navigation methods to determine their course and watch out for water hazards for many years. Nautical charts are one of the most fundamental tools available for marine navigation and portray many features of the marine environment not determined by a GPS system such as depth of water, configuration of the sea bottom, rise and fall of the tides, and locations of man-made aids in navigation. If you are going to be an expert sailor, you should know how to use GPS technology effectively along with other traditional sailing methods.

Am I required to have flotation devices on my sailboat?

Keep Personal Flotation Devices on Your Sailboat

Carrying the proper flotation devices, or PFDs, on your sailboat won't matter if you can't get to them quickly enough to help a sailor in trouble. Having certain kinds of PFDs are not only required on boats, they are an essential boat safety item. To follow marine navigation rules, you should have one PFD for every person onboard. You should also have one throw-away device on each boat 16 feet or longer, but it is always good to have this type of safety flotation device on board.

It is recommended that you wear PFDs during bad conditions such as rough water, when there is a great deal of boat traffic, or when you are a great distance from shore. Putting on a PFD when the boat is stable is easy, but doing it when it's rocking or when you have been thrust into dangerous water is not.

Different types of PFDs include a near-shore buoyant vest, a flotation aid vest (best used in calm water), an offshore life jacket and a special-use hybrid inflatable device. These safety items should always be in easy reach, not stored below deck or still in the coverings used when you bought them.

What kind of safety lighting is required on my sailboat?

Proper Lights for Coastal Navigation

As a licensed sailer, it is your responsibility to ensure your boat lights meet any and all requirements; these requirements are different for different types and sizes of sailboats. Required lighting configurations apply to sailboats from sunset to sunrise and during types of limited visibility, such as fog or bad weather. The U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Rules encompass lighting requirements for every type of watercraft. To determine which lights you need to have for your individual sailboat, you can research these rules online. Here are some examples:

Sailing vessels under 20 meters can exhibit lights along the stern or they can use a single combination lantern at the top of the mast. Sailors in vessels less than 7 meters can carry an electric torch or lantern as long as it can be displayed in enough time to prevent an accident. Anchor lights are also required for sail boats, although in certain situations they are not required on boats under 7 meters. Be careful when obtaining information about lighting requirements as there are punishments for not following such boat navigation rules. Taking a proper sailing course is one way to cover this topic adequately and be safe on the water.

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Lynda Moultry