Because of GPSs ubiquity and our faith in its everlasting reliability, we asked two of our regular authors, David Burch and Daniel Collins, to address the question of just how reliable GPS really is and what to do in the instance that we lose the signal and thus lose our position. You will find their takes on this important question on pages 18 and 40.
Not surprisingly, since both authors are veteran cruisers and expert navigators, they share the view that GPS is not foolproof. Our blind faith in the reliability of GPS is really a part of our belief in the reliability and accuracy of all of our marine electronics and in technology in general. Having used sailing instruments, depth sounders, radar and autopilots for a long while, we tend to believe the data they feed us and are often surprised and angered when one of these fails or is inaccurate.
The advance of technology is definitely a two-edged sword. On one hand technology makes sailing and navigating much easier than it was in the pre-GPS age. I have sailed across the South Pacific twice, once using a sextant and once with GPS. The difference in the plotted routes on the charts is dramatic, with the GPS routes being more or less straight lines while the sextant routes not so much.
Yet, by handing over the navigation to our devices, we lose something valuable in the transaction; we lose the power to use the natural world around us, the sun, moon, stars, wave patterns, wind direction and much more to determine our place on the great oceans. With heads down inside the boat, we manage computers instead of looking up with heads outside the boat to observe the real world. So much of life is like that these days.
How many times have you seen a person on the sidewalk almost walk into busy traffic because their head was down as they texted. I was once T-boned in my car by a person who never saw me, never looked up and never hit the brakes before the accident because her head was down as she operated her car and phone at the same time.
I don’t want to give up GPS or my chartplotter and all the other instruments on my boat. They are great. But, I also don’t want to give up the sun, moon and stars and the skills of knowing where I am and where I am going simply by observing the real world around me. Did you know that at sea you can locate a tropical lagoon that is over the horizon and out of sight by the reflection of its turquoise water on the bottom of the clouds above? In my view, I have more faith in the North Star than in my GPS even though I use the GPS more often to tell me where I am.