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Gizmos and Gadgets

Updated: May 10, 2020



We all have our favorite toys. I'm sure you do. In this age when your watch can control your autopilot, your chart plotter can adjust your music and then tell you how hot your engine is, whilst glancing at your phone for the latest weather, there are no end of gizmos and gadgets.


The very first electronic navigation 'assistant' I owned was a DECCA navigation system. It was made by Phillips and it had two screens which showed latitude and longitude. This particular predecessor to LORAN was first invented in the USA but developed in the UK. It was though first deployed by the Royal Navy during WWII.


This unit was the crowning glory of my electronics, which comprised of my depth sounder, which whizzed around a circular clock faced monitor flashing a light to indicate the current depth and a VHF fixed radio. The excitement of being able to just read a number and then plot it to the chart, well, was almost ecstatic.


DECCA navigation unit
Decca navigation

The joy of modern sailing, all of this wonderful electronic wonderfulness just sitting there keeping me safe and sound. It brought such comfort that I had paid no heed to things like the charging of the battery that made all of this goodness stay alive. The charging facility was the 9.9hp Yamaha engine which not only was tasked to keep the battery, (the one small engine start battery) up to snuff, it was also the main and only power source to propel my 28ft catamaran.


It was a great period in my life exploring the sea, testing my knowledge and with this particular craft not scaring my self senseless due to its potential of 22 knots of boat record-setting pace, which it had achieved within 1979, with a recorded run around the Isle of wight.


It was the second night with a rather nasty piece of water ahead, a sand bar to cross called 'doom bar', and a tidally restricted entrance all to navigate in and around, when the battery went flat.

Choices had to be made, items had to be off and others had to be on. The decision was made that navigation lights would be shown only when traffic was present, and day brake would be waited for before any attempt of land approach. So, a few hours, like 12 or so to wait, whilst keeping a safe distance from land and avoiding any ships was settled on. Not such a shabby plan for such a dilemma.


Around 3 a.m we had spotted the first ship, our estimated boat speed was around 15 knots and it appeared to be sitting stationary, awaiting the flood tide to go up the channel. The navigation lights were put on, we shot past and sailed into the darkness, lights off. Dead reckoning distance runs based on time, tack and sail back on the same course. Same ship. Same procedure, and off into the darkness once more.


On the third pass, the ship illuminated us with a bridge deck spotlight. We waved hello without seeming to be in distress and continued on into the darkness at 15 knots and turned all the lights off again, wondering what sort of entry the captain of the ship would have to make in his log for such an encounter. Dawn took a very long time to come that night, but it came, we sailed into the harbour with no awaiting officials to reprimand us our antics and a quayside pub for breakfast.


An article I read recently was encouraging the sailor to embrace electronic navigation and forget paper charts, with electronic redundancy as the backup plan. I read the article twice. I am still not convinced nor perhaps I ever will be, just ask the man who relies on his winch buddy to hoist the sails, once his battery is flat, or the unfortunate soul to be struck by lightning. Both of which I have witnessed.


The fact that we now rely on so many electronic items keeps me to a very simple rule. If I can not power it my self separate from the vessel, I will not carry it to sea. All batteries eventually go flat. My watch is solar-powered, my other one is self-winding. My small portable back up battery banks can be charged by a solar panel, which I can carry. I know exactly how long each device will run for, and how many times I can recharge. Even after those systems may have expired or depleted, I have a sextant.


The endnote is about the windlass, which it can fail. The look of horror when I point this out to bare boat charteres I fish into the memory bank of experience and I recall a story about Brian.


Now Brian looked like a model bodybuilder built into one, he stood on the dock in Brazil asking in his Danish American accent with blond hair flowing if we needed crew, I asked can you sail, to which no was the answer. I asked him to pull on a line, to which he started to raise the main on the 105ft gaff sail mast. He was hired as crew and I called him 'windlass' thereafter, the moral of the story is - if you don't have a battery, have a Brian.





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