Friday, October 22, 2010

Ain't Technology Wonderful

Calabash Creek, SC
33 53.32 N 078 34.19 W

On one hand, we rejoice on the marvels of modern technology. On the other hand, we lament dependence on gadgets and the loss of older skills. Let's discuss a little of each.

Rejoice first. In past years, I downloaded reports of trouble spots on the ICW. Those are places where you might run aground. The reports were all prose. They describe where the spot is using waterway names and nearby landmarks. They tell what to do, stay left, stay right, not at low tide. Struggling to precisely understand that prose and match it with what you see with your eyes and ears is very stressful. Worse, for hours in advance of reaching the trouble spot the prose preys on the mind causing worry.

Technology to the rescue. Starting this trip, I found that I can download recent survey maps directly from the Army Corps of Engineers. The one above is an example. No prose is needed. No unnecessary worry is caused because of uncertainly. The maps are crystal clear. I know exactly what to expect. Better still, I can download these maps to my laptop screen using my Driod phone as a modem.

There are several more advanced uses of this technology that even I haven't tried yet. One can get lists of GPS waypoints forming routes to travel. The lists can be uploaded to Google Earth and to Google Maps. Since my phone's version of Earth and Maps uses the built-in GPS, it shows exactly where we are. One can even upload the GPS waypoints to one's onboard chart plotter. If you're really foolish, you can slave the boat's autopilot to automatically steer that route. Google has robot cars that drive by themselves; sounds like boats are next.

On the other hand, a couple of weeks ago, I wrote that I would never attempt to navigate into Newark/Portsmouth VA at night without a chart plotter. Paper charts would not be enough if one couldn't see the buoy numbers.

I thought about that after writing the post. I could do it with a paper chart, compass, stopwatch, rulers, pencils and dividers. Have I ever practiced that in real life in a real complicated harbor area? No. Do I have the latest edition of all charts? No.

It is much easier and very seductive to say that I'll do it with GPS help only, or else stand off and wait for daylight.

A similar case comes with the exit to Little Shark River in Florida. There is a series of parallel sand bars off shore; each about 1 mile long, 200 yards apart, and each too shallow to sail over. Without a GPS chart plotter, navigation isn't accurate enough to confidently sail between the bars. The alternative is to sail about 5 miles south, then 5 miles back again, adding about two hours to the passage. With the chart plotter, we have three times navigated confidently with bars 100 yards to the left and right, but deep water under the keel.

What's my point? Simply that I find it almost impossible to not be seduced by modern technology, and to use it to extend the envelope of things I dare to do. It nags at my mind. I shouldn't do it so much, but I can't help myself.

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