Opinion | Ditch the GPS. It’s ruining your brain. - WP

My vote would be to have a special experimental class for them, try it out for a year or two and then decide. Might need a handicap adjustment which should become clear after a while.

That’s the way radio sailing started in the late 1940s and early 1950s. There was a “DX” class which was “anything with a radio in it.”

The current organization of radio sailing makes it difficult to repeat that for POV.



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I think it’s a choice to separate yourself from the environment or not.

As far as being able to use GPS at sea I see it as a big change not having to put that much time and energy into finding a position.

If you talk to people in STEM they will tell you the calculators and computers have freed them from time spend on tedious calculations and allows them to instead see the underlying patterns. Same is true at sea, Doing voyage plans, routing, weather, I feel like once I was blind but now I see. Something as simple as always knowing the exact speed.

A second point… The guys I used to work in the woods with used to subconsciously estimate direction and time from environmental clues. It was rare to see them use a watch or compass except for the occasional time they needed more precision.

It’s fractal both ways it seems to me, more tools or fewer. There is way more to the environment then we notice but our tools can either hide or reveal.

Teaching piloting requires actual practice. Otherwise terrestrial navigation is nothing more than a class to be passed. Bridge simulators focus mostly on collision avoidance while utilizing electronic navigation.

At Coastal Transportation the requirement since 2017 has been for prospective mates to accomplish ten days of piloting on the Salish Sea without recourse to GPS of any kind. Steaming through a maze of islands in a 65’ training boat using only paper charts and a magnetic compass, and a radar at night. This is one of few ways to train prospective mates to consider the big navigational picture, and drill the art of piloting into them so that in the unlikely even they lose the plotter they can still navigate safely.

To drive the training home, the trainees are also thrown in an open boat for six days and required to travel through a maze of waterways 130 miles to a final destination, without any navigational electronics, without a motor, and without a roof over their heads. When you can only row at two knots in channels where currents can reach 11 knots, either you learn piloting quick or you suffer for your mistakes.

If a trainee can’t do all this or doesn’t want to, they don’t become mates at the company. It’s the perfect way to separate those who can actually navigate from the beta-testers for the nav software which will replace them in a generation.

The company does a similar program to approve new mates for British Columbia pilotage waiver status.




The first time you posted this I thought it was a bit over the top but now I see the point. It’s very difficult to get most academy trained mates to break out of thinking of seamanship and navigation in narrow terms.

I read an article a while ago about a professional tracker. The guy they hire to find lost people or escaped convicts. He was describing his various techniques and he mentioned that a person walking on pavement couldn’t be tracked. Then he corrected himself, he said about tracking on pavement “leastwise I can’t”, which leaves the possibility it might doable, just that he doesn’t know how.

By the same token mariners should use care when talking about what can and cannot be done with regards to navigation. With regards to the lack of various tools such as a compass or sextant, better to think “I can’t do it” rather than “it can’t be done”.

Working with the fisherman in Alaska was very mind-bending experience for me given I already “knew” how to navigate before.


That reminds me of a novel I read once, I think it was Nevil Shute’s Trustee from the Toolroom or somesuch. It had a guy who navigated from LA to Hawaii by following the contrails, and for whatever reason, that bit sounded to me like a fictionalized anecdote. While utterly banal, it’s an interesting example of navigational methods that seem completely off the wall to your average mariner, but work just fine.

Traditional Polynesian navigation is a bit in the same genre, relying on water temperature, bird sightings and the like to position the craft in a space I can’t quite wrap my head around. There was another anecdote, I think it was related in Jared Diamond’s Collapse, of when some Polynesian seafarers were shown modern orthographic charts for the first time. They found them impressive, but utterly useless for navigation.

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We each live in our own world it seems.

I was just looking at the Table of Contents to the book “The Lost Art of Finding Our Way”. The book talks about the distinction between route knowledge and survey knowledge. Route knowledge being how to get from here to there, Survey knowledge, according to the book is “a complete familiarity with an environment”.

There are analogies to be made here I think. Learning “how to navigate” is an illusion in a way. Learning the route, a particular set of tasks or certain skills, even a network of routes sometimes leads us to believe that survey knowledge does not exist.

Following directions (to a destination) is not the same as knowing where you are.


Or an engineer who can perform routine maintenance but can’t trouble-shoot because the principals are not well understood.


I just came across this word: Consilience

In science and history, consilience (also convergence of evidence or concordance of evidence ) is the principle that evidence from independent, unrelated sources can “converge” on strong conclusions. That is, when multiple sources of evidence are in agreement, the conclusion can be very strong even when none of the individual sources of evidence is significantly so on its own.

When we think in terms of standard navigation practices we think in terms of the "cross-check. That is to use another standard but independent method, for example visual bearings and radar ranges. These sources are “related”.

But if the search for information is broadened, looking for “convergence of evidence”, then information might be available from meteorology: If the GPS Fails I’m Riding the Isobars Home or the things learned from the fisherman: We don’t need no stinking compass

These sources are unrelated, less obvious.

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If I am not mistaken, Micronesian navigators also use waves, swell patterns and the like. Especially on Yap.

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I have to recommend The Lost Art of Finding Our Way by John Edward Huth..

I skimmed it the first time and I’ve never been very interested in how the Pacific Islanders navigated but I’m taking a second look now, it’s a good book.

The human brain is wired to navigate. Now with modern tools we miss many environmental clues that are no longer required to move around to the point where using them seems implausible.

…like the internationally most famous traditional sailor, the late Mau Piailug (died 2010), from the Satawal Island (eastern Yap State). He sailed into Polynesia (Hawaii, Tahiti, Pago Pago etc).
The traditional sailing is still ‘teached’ at the eastern Yap islands (Satawal, Lamotrek) and the western Chuuk islands (Poluwat, Pulusuk).

I never read of a persistent heritage of traditional sailing in Polynesia, only in Micronesia.

For more than a thousand years long distance noninstrumental navigation has been practiced over large areas of Polynesia, Micronesia, and perhaps in parts of Melanesia. In Polynesia, the traditional techniques atrophied and were ultimately lost in the wake of contact with colonial powers. Only the Micronesians have maintained their traditional skills and in the past decade they have been the wellspring of navigation knowledge for a renaissance of traditional voyaging throughout the Pacific basin(Finney, 1979; Lewis, 1976, 1978).

Pacific Islanders originate from countries within the Oceanic regions of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. New Zealand is uniquely within Australasia as well as Polynesia and its majority European and native Māori populations are not considered Pacific Islanders.

My wife is Micronesian, born on Yap, but her heritage is from tiny Pingelap. I wish that she inherited some of those navigational skills. . . . .


Of the Polynesians, theTongans were most advanced and voyaged frequently between the Western Lau group of Fiji and to Samoa, not always with benevolent intent. The Maori of New Zealand are believed to have voyaged South from Rarotonga about a thousand years ago and from recent archeological evidence of the crops they grew the climate in New Zealand was warmer than it is today.
It was my understanding that most voyages took place at the same time of year and the directions to each island group was indicated by a certain star rising or setting as well as the behaviour of birds and swell patterns.

Yes you are correct but on our ship, on long open ocean stretches, I make plotting sheets ahead of time for the entire transit. Using paper charts and ECDIS for the hourly position verification but simultaneously each watch does a star/ dun line and continues with a running fix or a star fix. At least at night I will shoot Polaris for the required Azimuth and at least to get a line of latitude.

Interesting comparison between merchie and navy. The Navy template does offer the advantage of freeing the conn from mundane pigeonholed tasks due to the division of tasks among a large bridge full of ratings feeding the conn data. The downside is the conn is detached from thngs such as CPAs, TCPAs nearest shoal water etc as abstract data streams. By the very nature of dangerously reduced manning on merchant bridges, we end up being a one conning officer show and are more involved with the actual meaning of <0.25nm CPAs etc. When I came from limited tonnage OSV,s and Seismic survey industry ships where I was the sole watch and the bridge instrumentation was economically wrapped around me. I had a keen sense of spatial relationship especially in way of set and drift of OBC seismic buoys and how close I could crab up to them downstream a strong current man the searchlight radar VHF and backdeck radio with the seismic crew and still converse with traffic directing what course they needed to take to give our “prospect” area the required distance to not interfere with our data recording, or on OSVs free-boating at a MODU or production platform holding her stern under the crane in all opposing sea and current scenarios. Now on a deep draft ship for years, I avoid being on the bridge as I am reduced to a “hand puppet” manning the throttles which my four year old grandson could master. I would be hard pressed to perform at the situational level I possessed years ago.

whats missing there is logic thats generally why people can troubleshoot