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

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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.



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Follow the marks

East CardinalThe one question that a good skipper always has running through his head (along with the question about whose turn it is to make the next cup of tea) is: “Where am I?”

Even if he thinks he knows, he needs to check regularly. Transits provide the best lines of position possible, and coupled with an accurate and trusted depth gauge, they give you a good fix. But there are some places where the sea bed is just, well, flat (and shallow as well). And where transits are few and far between. It's in these circumstances that lights, buoys and other marks come into play, and pilotage begins to look a little more like navigation.

This is where the business of buoy hopping comes into its own, and where the nervous or cautious navigator begins to use the charts more regularly. Around the European coast, most authorities have kindly recognised these tricky places, and have installed floating signposts and fixed traffic lights for us.

In these circumstances, pilotage becomes a case of knowing without a shadow of doubt which mark you have just left, which mark you need to see next, and in which direction it lies. Never guess.

The sea may look uniformly flat, but you can bet anything that the sea bed isn't, and if you cut a corner, you might find that the shopping trolley you hit doesn't have wheels. So follow the buoyed channels religiously. Often the buoys are numbered, or have fixed light sequences that you can follow.

Don't just try to spot the next red or green can. That's a recipe for going aground. When you pass a known buoy, go below, check the bearing of the next buoy on the chart, then take the hand bearing compass, or read off from the steering compass, the bearing on which the next buoy will be found.

Or better still, having prepared your pilot plan, you will have it all written down on a bit of paper. Call out the course to steer to the next buoy, take a back bearing on the one you just passed to check you're not being set into shallow water, and then look carefully to make sure that the red or green you think is the next buoy is actually on the correct bearing.

There is absolutely no substitute for using the compass in these situations. You have to know what bearing the next buoy is on, or you will miss one, sure as eggs, and end up cutting a corner that has less than a metre under the keel. On a rising tide, it may not be a complete disaster. On a falling tide, you are in for a wait, or worse.

At night, or during the day if you can see them, you will also find fixed and floating lights to give you a hand. Sector lights are particularly useful, and don't forget that the lights on a Cardinal can fix your position for you fairly swiftly at night.

But beware, at night, of distances. Lights can seem much closer (or much further away) than they really are. For example, there's a cardinal buoy just east of the northern tip of Corsica, marking the passage between the north of Corsica and the Island of Capraia.

There's oodles of room, but if you approach from France, you cut the passage at an angle, and there's always traffic there. The lights, and particularly that cardinal, are so clear that you think you are much closer to the shore than you really are. The phenomenon can be very unnerving the first time you experience it.

You can check the safety of your progress by keeping one eye glued to the depth gauge if you are at any risk of grounding, by taking regular fixes if there are buoys or lights, and by going slowly enough to stop and think it all through if you think you've got it wrong.

And if you think I'm being over-cautious, just try following an inexperienced Sunsail charter out of Port Solent. There's a nasty dog leg in the channel, and if you pass one red and aim for what looks like the nearest next red cone, you'll cut the corner badly. On a low tide, it can ground you!
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