Finding Your Way in Unfamiliar Waters

For sailors of old using antiquated methods, finding their bearings and navigating the waterways was an art. Modern technology has made navigation much easier; mariners today rely on global positioning to determine location and plot routes. But what happens if the GPS goes out?

Navigating without GPS?

You should always have a reasonable idea of where you are in a large body of water. If you are a regular on a large lake or gulf area, you probably recognize buildings on the shoreline that give you bearings. While this method works under normal circumstances, if you try to find your way back after dark, everything will look different.
In unfamiliar waters, it is good to have maps so you can locate your launch point and use your compass to find your way back. This method will work better if you also locate landmarks on the map that you can look for on your return. Never assume you will be able to remember all the different directions you take during a day on the water.


One simple way to determine your position is with your compass and a landmark. Before you leave the dock, you should sight a large or unusual structure on the far shore. If you can discern what the landmark is on a map, mark it and draw a line from the launch site to the structure.
Read the compass to see the approximate reading and record it on the line you drew from the dock to the landmark. If you are coming back from the direction of the landmark, you will go in the opposite compass direction.
Although this is not a precise way to navigate, it should enable you to come back close enough to find the dock, even in the dark.
Keep in mind that not all compasses are of equal quality. Your boat’s compass may not read accurately enough for locating a fishing area to which you want to return, or a particular bar in the water that has an attraction for you. For that, you should get a good quality, hand-bearing compass.
Unfortunately, it can be a roll of the dice to find a truly accurate compass. Look for a compass with a money back guarantee so you can determine if it meets your needs, before you invest much time charting with it.

Pelorus and Sextant

A relatively new way of positioning is binoculars with a built in compass. Ideal for shipboard navigation or locating objects, these instruments makes other ways of positioning almost obsolete. Other methods, like using a Pelorus, require two people to plot a course accurately.
Here’s a quick review of relative bearings; they are angles relative to a boat’s heading that are determined by measuring clockwise from straight ahead. The Pelorus is the pivot point to determine the angle in a 360-degree fashion. Some seaman still use this positioning method to plot courses.
A Sextant is a traditional positioning tool that is still relevant. The Sextant is used to measure the angle between any two visible objects, such as the horizon, and the sun or a star in the sky. One person can position with a simple plastic Sextant, as long as there are landmarks to work from. For instance, if you have a long trip to make across a body of water, locate a lighthouse or other high profile object across the way.
Using the Sextant, you can determine the angle from the sighted structure to the heading you are making. To plot your return, you turn the same angle to the opposite side. (This is a very simplified explanation of the process to give you an idea of how it works.)
If you are on a large lake or at sea, a general knowledge of the compass direction you are in from the dock is usually enough to get you back. Most small craft skippers don’t know much about bearings, how to determine them, or how to use a sextant. The only important thing for you to know is how to get your boat back to where you put it in the water.
You can get terribly confused attempting to follow directions in the dark or when you are caught in a storm. Under adverse conditions, it might not be in your best interest to attempt finding your way to your entry point. In such cases, it might be best to make it to an available dock or shore area to weather the storm or to wait until daylight—options that are better than running aground or getting someone hurt.
There’s nothing scarier than being lost while out on the water. If you are out on a large body of water with no other craft in sight and no idea of how to explain to someone where you are, you will feel completely alone and stranded. Determine the best way for you to find your bearings, and plan on practicing and perfecting that technique for your own well-being and peace of mind. The U.S. Coast Guard offers comprehensive navigational courses for both experienced and novice boat operators. You can click on this link to find one in your area.

About the Author

Jane Warren is an avid outdoor water enthusiast who enjoys swimming, scuba diving, boating, towable tubes, and just about anything else related to outdoor water sports. She and her husband spend 4-6 months of the year in Grand Cayman or other beach locations. They have a boat, and enjoy going out on the water, either just riding, or being active in water sport activities.
Because of her love of water sports, Jane started the website, where she provides information and reviews on water sports equipment including towable tubes, kayaks, wakeboards, water trampolines, and related sport accessories.
Category: Boat Offshore