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How to avoid expensive mistakes when you buy a new or second-hand yacht. 

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Icom IC-M35We review the Icom IC-M35 handheld.  Read the full review here.

GMDSS A User's Handbook

By Denise Bréhaut

GMDSS A user's handbook








The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) provides a fast and efficient way of calling for assistance at sea, whatever the size of craft or its geographical position. Since it was first published, this book has helped explain the system for anyone using GMDSS and has been excellent pre-course reading for students.



SafaSail HatThe SafaSail Hard Hat looks just like a sailing cap, but will help protect you if you get a bang to the head.  See our review here

Introduction to Pilotage

East CardinalWhen I was learning to sail, armed with copious notes from my RYA Yachtmaster theory course studied over a long winter at Hamble, I would take great pride in my navigation skills.

Each passage was meticulously planned, with tides carefully worked out, and each hour's offset drawn on the chart. Lines were drawn on the chart from the marina berth to the marina entrance, and then out along the coast, in great detail. Tidal flow across the mouth of the marina was allowed for, and drawn in. If everything went to plan, it was like driving a train down rails.

But the difficulties with all this careful work soon became apparent. If I was ready to leave early, I had to wait until my planned departure time. If I was late, then I had to sit down and do it all over again. There might be a good wind, but if it was in the wrong direction, I would have to use the motor to stick to the plan.

I was spending ages at the chart table, and because I wasn't watching the progress of the yacht when I had my head stuck into charts, I made silly mistakes. I would ask the helmsman to steer 297 degrees, when in reality he wasn't able to steer much better than five degree increments.

It wasn't until I had done a couple of cross channel passages that the difference between 'navigation' and 'pilotage' began to dawn, and instead of spending ages at the chart table as soon as the lines were stowed, struggling with sea sickness, and trying to make my three-point fixes match the lines on the chart, I found I was able to spend most of the time up in the cockpit, enjoying the sunshine. I had a much better idea of where I was, and discovered all sorts of new tricks to help me.

What I tend to do nowadays is to look at the passage plan in outline, find a suitable departure point, and put its waypoint on the chart and the GPS, if I have one. The departure point marks both the real and the psychological switch from pilotage to navigation, and helps me prepare for the reality of the passage.

It's at the departure point that we go into watches if we need to. I know that anything up to the departure point is pilotage, and after that, it's navigation. Of course, the distinction is semantic, but having it helps me be clear about what mode I'm in.

If things get tricky, or there's fog or heavy rain, I can always revise the departure point and start navigating from there. Very rarely do I draw tidal vectors or course lines on the chart before departure point, but the fixes get done regularly, and the log book is updated with comments like 'One mile south of Buggins Light', or 'just passed Blinking Buoy' with 'P' for pilotage in front of any course (P 250M) so I know not to rely on it remaining constant.

Pilotage is a real skill. But like many skills, we do it in our heads, most of the time anyway. And we do it standing or sitting in the cockpit, looking out at the many landmarks, transits, buoys and lights that our ancestors have so kindly bequeathed us - not at the chart table.

The first golden rule of pilotage is that the skipper must ALWAYS know where he or she is and where he is going. The second golden rule is that if the skipper thinks he knows where he is and where he is going, he should check. If he doesn't, he should check and check again.

The best way of doing that is by referring to a pilot plan, or a pilot book sketch, or some notes. I sail in the Solent a fair bit, if only to get away from it, but the last time I came out of Portsmouth, heading for Cowes, I was simply a passenger. It was blowing quite hard, and at one point I found myself asking the skipper: “Where's the Bramble Bank now?” I had lost my orientation for a moment. But worse, so had he!

So if you don't have a plan of the key marks in your head, put one on paper. You can mark in lights, buoys, course bearings, and approximate times at certain speeds between points. You can put in key depths, or mark rough contour lines. And above all else, you can mark in the obvious transits.

I know I'm at point B when I can see Luminous Light in transit with Choking Chimney and the depth reads 25 mtrs. If Luminous Light comes in transit with Choking Chimney and I'm shallow, I need to go to port and find the depth.

I can check on the way the yacht is being set by taking a back bearing, or better still, pointing the hand held compass at a fixed object astern and watching how the needle swings. It's amazing how easy it is to see how you're being set by the tide, leeway, or just bad steering by doing that. The key thing is to keep checking, using a variety of different methods. And if they don't add up, ask yourself why!

A friend of mine once had the privilege of going on a shout with an RNLI crew. I asked him afterwards what single thing stuck in his mind. He had no hesitation in replying: “The way the navigator checked every few minutes where he was. He used everything - depth, marks, handheld, chart, GPS, the lot!”

Richard Thomas holds a Commercially Endorsed RYA Yachtmaster and Cruising Instructor (Sail) certificate. He runs his own delivery business, and is available for deliveries, assisted passages, own-yacht tuition, and yacht management.
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