Dead Reckoning. Reflections from the Sea

Posted by Jonathan Banks on December 28, 2012

Dead Reckoning.  Essential for navigation. Critical for life.

Dead Reckoning

As we approach the end of another year, and the beginning of the next; it is a personal habit to slip away, alone, and reflect. To dedicate some time to consider the year in my wake. To evaluate the route that I had planned, the storms and sunsets I encountered along the way, the horizon I had as a final waypoint. All now plotted neatly on the chart. Connecting lines of list and calendars, times spent with colleagues, friends and family. Ventures new and habits old. Relationships ended, suspended, blossoming and born out of chance. Wins and loses. These fixes, if you will, plot the journey of the past 12 months, the watches I have stood to sail life from where I was, to where I am. And, if in-fact, the place to which I have arrived, is actually the place for which I was steering.

So often, as I raise the coast of this destination, the landfall named Late December two thousand and something, and I pull down a final sight to fix my position, the end-of-year review, when the lines cross on the chart, they do not fall neatly on the place that I had predicted. I am not, in-fact, where I thought that I would be. The course that I steered did not deliver me to the place I intended.

One of the ancillary aspects of sailing, which so appeals to me, are the many beautiful analogies to life. Dead Reckoning (DR), perhaps, is one of the most profound. Dead Reckoning is, according to Bowditch:

"the determination of position by advancing a known position for courses and distances." Time, distance and speed.

In proper navigation, a good DR is the foundation for efficient, safe, informed sailing and decision making along the way. In traditional navigation, dead reckoning was absolutely essential to navigate at all. In life, it is exactly the same case. The end-of-year review, however, is historical and hindsight. The practice of DR, weather on a cruise or weaving through life's eddies, is progressive and forward thinking.

To quote from Bowditch, Vol.1 the 1984 edition of the American Practical Navigator, Nathaniel sums up the practice of Marine Navigation thus:

"The most important element of navigation cannot be acquired from this book- nor from any book or instructor. The science of navigation can be taught, but the art of navigation must be acquired. Modern navigation is a blending of the two – a scientific art. The truly successful navigator is one who supplements his knowledge with judgment, utilizing every opportunity to improve his judgment through experience. Even with Knowledge and judgment, the navigator cannot expect to be fully reliable unless he is alert, constantly evaluating the situation as it develops, avoiding dangerous situations before they arise, or recognizing them if they do occur, and always keeping "ahead of the vessel." The elements of successful navigation, then, are knowledge, judgment, and alertness."

Dead Reckoning for Life

Employing these elements of successful navigation, are arguably the same key elements to getting through a year in life, and having the best chance of arriving at the place that we set out to gain. But there are some far deeper implications of the practice of keeping up a good life DR. One of those is that we do not always find ourselves at the place that we thought we would, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. For, sometimes, the place we find ourselves, though not where we expected, offers new and exciting opportunities we did not at first see.

Dead Reckoning for Sailing

In sailing, and especially cruising and racing, the important realization of taking a fix and comparing it to a DR, is that they may, or they may not fall one on top of the other. And generally, we are a bit surprised if they do fall exactly on top of each other. As we learn our boats and cruising grounds better, we improve our ability to predict leeway, set and drift with more accuracy. We learn to compensate for various states of chop, to plot our course to arrive on the more favorable side of an island for the final reach home. From past experience, we are able to plan better and more accurately to get where we are going. Our fix, falls more and more often right on top of the DR. Navigating our way through life, should be no different.

Dead Reckoning for Life and Sailing

However – what about when we find ourselves far and away off from our DR once we plot a fix. That because of one of life's storms, or a twist that we did not see coming, maybe a person that we met has introduced a new avenue or our eyes have been opened to a new way of looking at something, that we have ventured in a direction that we had not planned?

Sometimes there is an overcast sky or storm that obscures the stars and heavenly bodies, our signpost, which, if we were navigating by celestial means alone, would preclude an opportunity to fix our position at all. DR would be our only means of predicting where we are, or, at least, where we should be.

We know that the sun eventually comes out again, and we will have an opportunity to pull down a sight and plot our position, accurately, once more. Many times, these circumstances can last for long periods of time. Sometimes we only have a fleeting moment in-between breaking clouds to pull down the sun or a single star, giving us a chance to capture it with the sextant, hope that we guessed its identity correctly and then use it to improve our DR: where we think we should be.

In life, we often run from appointment to deadline for so long and so fast, that we do not have time to take a proper fix and determine if we are in-fact on course, or getting carried away by a phantom current. The overcast of life can sometimes leave us without a proper position running before a gale, only to get far off course before we have an opportunity to get a good plot on the chart once again. At times, we need to remember that it can be best, to simply heave-to. Our DR helps us identify weather we are on course, or not; if we should stay the course, alter it, or tack over all together.

Maybe the course we have been sailing is no longer possible to continue? There has been a wind shift or maybe a gear failure, and we are forced to change heading or deal with a new set of circumstances. In the case of a gear failure, maybe we have to contemplate turning around, or finding an alternate landfall? We may find that we have to plot an alternate course for an entirely new destination, because of new and unforeseen events. But again, this is not necessarily a terrible thing. What it is; is reality. What we make of it, is an entirely new voyage.

The Final Stretch Home

Once we have raised our destination and arrival is in sight, piloting takes over. It is a shift from cruising along offshore, where the course is steady and there are few hazards we have to avoid, to inshore, shallow water where the hazards are many, and the need for a more frequent position is required. Bowditch phrases it like this:

"In the vicinity of shoal waters, frequent and continuous positional information is usually essential for the safety of the vessel. No other form of navigation requires the continuous alertness needed in piloting. At no other time is navigational experience and judgment so valuable. The ability to work rapidly and to correctly interpret all available information, always keeping "ahead of the vessel," may mean the difference between safety and disaster."

The methodical daily routine of ocean navigation as we track along full-and-by, to more frequent fixing of the position as we near our destination, is again, the same for life. As we begin and end big projects or new business or relationships, the need for more frequent planning and knowing our precise position is great. Once we are under way and we are logging miles towards our destination, we can be more relaxed and concentrate on keeping up momentum, maintenance of the ship and our average daily-run. As we approach the final waypoint, we begin to shift back to a higher frequency of plotting our fix, advancing our DR and planning for the next maneuver, always keeping "ahead of the vessel."

All of these things will vary from time to time, and with weather, navigational features and familiarity. In life, it is primarily the people, events, the calendar, projects and 'acts of nature' that are our chart and ocean. When we are mid project or things are reaching along, we can rest a little easier letting the autopilot do the steering. When events unexpected occur, or an opportunity presents itself to us, or maybe a door closes, it is at these times that we need to tune-up our life compass and plot a fix. At these times, having a reliable DR pays dividends, both in peace of mind and the likely success of the decisions that will be made.

Just as in sailing, the inherent leeway of life needs to be constantly checked and adjusted for. All of these situations can have positive, neutral and/or negative effects. The importance of keeping up a good life DR, is that it allows us to recognizing these outside influences, identify them, measure them, and then decide how to best deal with them. Are we on course? Are we being set by an invisible current or maybe an eddy that we did not even know existed? Is our decision to go inshore instead of the rhumb line paying off?

Sometimes we need to make a slight course correction. Sometimes we need to tack. And yet at others, we need to simply stay the course. Sometimes, a stray current will lead us to a magical destination that was not even on our radar screen. Sometimes, we find that we are getting carried along in just the right direction. We only know this, however, if we are keeping up a good DR.

So… now it's your turn. As we round out the year, please feel free to share your own boating course correction stories of 2012.

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