With slumped shoulders and a dejected gait like a dog who’d just been kicked, the navigator ascended from the companionway to the cockpit with a crumpled chart in his hand and a confession on his lips. “If I was Japanese, I’d commit hari-kari right now,” he said. “I feel like taking a long walk off a short pier with my pockets full of ballast.”
Actually, things weren’t that bad. No real damage had been done, and the only thing bruised was an ego. But the fact remained, he went on to explain, that we were some 50 miles west of where, just moments before, we thought we were. For a while there-and there’s no other way to put it-we’d been lost at sea.
Don’t think it can happen to you? Well, it happened to us, and while I’m certainly no Captain Cook, I have a fairly good track record when it comes to getting where I plan to go. But my offshore credentials pale in comparison with those of the navigator in question, a fellow with tens of thousands of miles under his keel who’s also a prolific sailing writer and goes by the name of Don Street.
Yes, that Don Street.
Several days earlier, with a crew of four that included Don and his youngest son, Mark, I’d set sail from the British Virgin Islands bound for Bermuda aboard the Oyster 49 Nimrod of Orwell, a voyage that’s chronicled in this month’s issue (see “His Old Man and the Sea,” page 42). It was a fine passage-right up to the last day.
Don was below at the nav station and I was at the helm as we made what we thought was our final approach to the buoy off the entrance to the narrow cut into St. George’s Harbour. It was a snotty, squally morning with low cloud cover, a cold breeze out of the northeast, and minimal visibility. Even so, it was becoming increasingly apparent that things weren’t adding up.
“We’re about 600 yards off; it won’t be long now,” Don called up. But it didn’t seem possible. I’ve been in and out of Bermuda many times, and we should’ve seen something other than the bluish-gray seascape before us. Yes, it was crummy out, but it wasn’t that crummy.
When, a few minutes later, Don hollered, “The sea buoy must be missing,” Mark and I looked hard at one another. No way. Not off Bermuda.
At that stage, Mark dove below to double-check the figures, and the mystery was solved. The day before, Don had fashioned a plotting sheet of the approach and from that moment on had used it exclusively, forgoing the paper charts. But he’d made an error of one degree of longitude when transferring the coordinates: 64 degrees longitude on the chart became 65 on the sheet. From then on, in literal terms, Don’s actual “navigation” was fine. We were just a whole lot west of where we should’ve been.
A good 12 hours later, well after midnight, we eased alongside the customs dock at St. George. Don knew I’d be writing about the incident and had given it some thought. “It was a stupid mistake,” he said. “Just goes to show you, no matter how long you sail, you can still make ’em. Reminds me of something Monk Farnham used to say: ‘The art of navigation is the art of continually checking and calculating and finding your errors before you’ve gotten yourself in serious trouble.'”
That’s good, hard-earned advice, and Don dispenses more of it in the first of a three-part series beginning this month on prepping for and sailing to the islands (see “The Pre-Caribbean Shakedown,” page 62). It may be even more valuable coming from someone who can admit an error. For as Don says, anyone can make mistakes. The best sailors are the ones who learn from them.