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Cruising primer: navigation know-how for adventurous boaters.


Bah! to anyone who says the Age of Exploration is over. There's never been a better time to point your bow into new waters. Adventure still lies over the horizon. Every lake, river, fishing hot spot or port of call is a new discovery when you visit for the first time.

Cruising does not require a big-bucks mega-yacht. Some of the best cruising grounds are accessible only to small shoal-draft craft. So don't wait until you can afford that big dreamboat; start with the boat you have and go now. A pontoon or bowrider is perfectly suited for inland lakes and rivers. Just fit your cruising destinations to the boat you own.

Don't let fear of the unknown get in your way. Charts drawn 500 years ago depicted fearsome mythical beasts and cautioned mariners, "Here Be Dragons." Those critters never existed. "Dragons" were a way of warning mariners about unknown rocks and shoals. Today's charts and electronic equipment help us avoid those navigational problems, but a few cruising "dragons" still exist. Gas pumps can be farther apart than you may expect, or what seemed a quaint port may lack the store to buy bacon for breakfast. So always know before you go. Broadly speaking, you need two kinds of information:

1. Personal Goals: Anglers need to know the local sportfish and the tactics to bring in the lunkers, history buffs will want to know what happened during the Civil War or Prohibition and everyone enjoys discovering a great hamburger joint or a shop that sells homemade pies.

2. Navigational Information: Be aware of rocks, shoals, marina locations, etc. You gain this type of information from charts, cruising guides, GPS receivers and your onboard electronics.


Start gathering both types of information several months prior to departure. While the Internet is virtually instantaneous, many paper-and-ink charts still have to arrive via old-fashioned snail mail.



Even if you do all your underway navigation using a GPS chartplotter, paper charts are highly valuable during the planning stages of your adventure, because you can write notes and reminders about navigational dangers, historic sites, fishing holes and even restaurants in the margins.

Navigational charts are drawn to different scales. This refers to the ratio of the size of objects depicted on paper to their actual size in real life. A scale of 1:1 indicates the drawing is the same size as the object, a 1:2 scale shows the object at half size. Although it seems counterintuitive, the larger the scale of a chart the smaller the detail it can show.

Chart No. 1:

The basics of chart reading are not difficult to learn. White tinted areas indicate generally safe water. Blue tint indicates shoal areas. The intensity of the blue increases as the depth decreases. Green areas indicate spots that can uncover at low tide or during low water conditions. Buff, tan or ochre tint is reserved for land areas. Asterisks (***) denote dangerous rocks that may be just below the surface.


A lighted aid to navigation (lighthouse, harbor entrance light, etc.) is identified by a magenta "flare" connected to a dot. The dot marks the exact location of the light. Even if the aid is a massive brick lighthouse, all you see is that dot and the magenta flare.

Lighted buoys appear more impressive on the chart than lighthouses even though they are smaller in real life. Buoys are depicted as black dots with a magenta collar to remind you that they are floating and move around on their anchor chains.

The variety of symbols used on charts is so great that it takes a whole booklet to list them all. This booklet is called Chart No. 1 and can be purchased through chart dealers. You can also download it for free from the NOAAWeb site: www.nauticalcharts.

Cruising Guides:

One private publication that is a "must-have" for coastal cruising is one of the three Reed's Nautical Almanacs. Editions are published for the East Coast, West Coast and Caribbean. Each contains tide and tide/current tables, waypoints for aids to navigation, warnings of navigational hazards and local weather.

There are nearly 9,500 miles of navigable rivers in the United States perfect for exploration by boat. Unfortunately, very little government information is published specifically for pleasureboats. For the past half century this void has been filled by Quimby's Cruising Guide, which covers all of the western rivers as well as many backwaters. Find it at

Depths and Clearances:

Depths are measured from "lower low water" on coastal charts. This means that you almost always have more depth of water than is shown. Of course, at high tide the actual depth will always be greater. Beware, however, that once or twice a month during spring tides the low water depth may be less than shown.

Great Lakes charts are measured from an artificial "datum." This datum has been set so that most of the time you have more water available than shown on the chart.


A "large-scale" chart (e.g., 1:50,000) shows a small area in great detail. Individual rocks, piers and buildings can all be called out. Conversely, a "small-scale" chart (e.g., 1:600,000) shows the largest details. Only general contours of the coastline or islands are discernable.

HARBOR CHARTS: scales larger than 1:50,000 for harbors, anchorage areas and smaller waterways.

COAST CHARTS: scales from 1:50,000 to 1:150,000 for inshore navigation leading to bays and harbors of considerable width, and for navigating large inland waterways.

GENERAL CHARTS: scales 1:150,000 to 1:600,000 for coastwise navigation outside outlying reefs and shoals.




If you have a working knowledge of the rules for one area of the country, you know them well enough for everywhere else. There are only two sets of federal rules, inland and international. Both are based on the international treaty governing safety at sea, so they are fundamentally the same.

Each of the 50 states has established local laws, which may be somewhat different from federal laws. Generally, the federal inland rules apply on federally navigable waters, while state law preventing collisions applies on all other waters.

FEDERAL WATERS: any lake, river, estuary or coastal waters from which a boat can make a passage to the open sea via ordinary means such as canals, locks, etc.

STATE WATERS: any lake, river, etc. from which a boat cannot make a passage to the open sea as above.

There are odd exceptions to the above. Some stretches of river are still considered federal even though the locks and canals leading to the sea have been gone for a century. Also, keep in mind that while federal rules may govern the conduct of boats to prevent collisions, state laws regarding pollution, safety equipment and fishing always apply on federal waters. It is a good idea to obtain a copy of the local laws for each state in which you plan to cruise.

Western Rivers:

The Mississippi River and all of its tributaries (e.g., the Missouri, the Ohio and the Illinois rivers) are considered the "Western Rivers" by law. The term does not apply to the rivers of California, Oregon or Washington because these do not flow into the Mississippi. This designation originated prior to the Civil War when the Mississippi River formed the western boundary of the United States.

On the Western Rivers (and certain areas of the Great Lakes) the downbound vessel with a following current has right-of-way over an upbound vessel when meeting at a bend or in confined water. In this case, the downbound vessel proposes the place of passing and how it will be done (port to port, or starboard to starboard). This Western Rivers rule overrides the usual rule that the boat crossing from the right is the stand-on vessel. It particularly applies to a pleasureboat crossing the path of a barge tow.

Barge tows cannot maneuver to avoid collisions with pleasureboats. They are confined to the deepwater channel. Worse, it can take several miles to bring a downbound tow to a stop because of the following current. Don't tempt fate: Stay as far away as practical from barge tows.

Whistle Signals:

The purpose of maneuvering whistle signals changes when you go from international to inland waters. Maneuvering signals on international waters are informational. One short blast means, "I am turning to starboard" while two shorts means, "I am altering course to port." On international waters no response is needed from any other vessel.

Things change on inland waters where one short blast means, "I intend to turn to starboard" and two shorts means, "I intend to turn to port." The idea is that you make your intention known before turning. The other vessel must respond with either the same one- or two-blast signal if they agree with your intention or five short blasts if there is danger.


If it's been a few years since you've shopped for onboard navigation electronics, it's time for an upgrade. GPS-enabled chartplotters are more sophisticated than ever and with chart services constantly updating their databases, it's now easy to navigate even remote backwaters. Touchscreens, like the Raymarine E-Series Widescreen, provide an intuitive interface for those who are new to navigation technology. Most navigation devices come with a set of charts preloaded, or you can subscribe to a chart service like C-MAP by Jeppesen, which allows you to unlock charts that interest you on an a la carte basis.


The charts themselves have seen an upgrade as well. The new generation of electronic charts, such as Jeppesen Marine 4D and Navionics TurboView, show depths and terrain in realistic 3D, making it easier to match what's on the chart with what you see around you.



Many units provide you with much more than navigation information, so there's no need for multiple electronics. The new G12 from geonav comes equipped with XD sonar for fishfinding, a monitoring system to help you keep an eye on your boat and a satellite television receiver. If you're planning onshore adventures, Garmin offers handheld GPS devices that are rugged and waterproof. Lowrance offers Sirius satellite radio as an option, so you'll always have the weather forecast at your fingertips.


Fire up the GPS chartplotter after you have a good working knowledge of the area you intend to cruise. Input any waypoint coordinates needed for your upcoming trip and have the GPS create the course between waypoints. Compare the image on the electronic screen to your charts and guidebooks before you get on the water and be aware of any discrepancies. Whether you rely on paper charts or the latest technology, it's ultimately up to you to make sure the course you steer is safe.


Hudson's Bay Start

Back in the 1600s, intrepid men employed by the Hudson's Bay Co. would depart Montreal each spring on extended expeditions seeking fur pelts for sale in Europe. On the day of departure they would pack their bateaux with enough food and equipment to last for months in the wilderness. After saying goodbye, the crews would paddle a mile or two before setting up their first overnight camp. Usually, they were still within sight of their departure point.

This extremely short first day became known as a "Hudson's Bay Start." It was based on human nature. Everybody forgets something at the start of a trip. And nothing uncovers these forgotten items like going into camp for the first time. The Hudson's Bay crews discovered what they had forgotten while they were still near enough to home. It was still possible to send men to fetch the forgotten or misplaced items.

Take a hint from those rugged fur trappers. Make your first day out a short one and spend your first night at or near a port that offers full-service marinas and supplies. That way, when you discover the frying pan is missing, you'll be able to fetch one in time for breakfast.

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Title Annotation:feature: navigation
Author:Brown, David G.
Publication:Boating World
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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