Follow that ship!

Alternative navigation by Richard Bessey

Finding one’s way around the coasts of Northern Europe, is easy using a simple navigational technique – following other boats! In Holland, for instance, as soon as the tide turns fair, boats go streaming out of the harbours and anchorages, and thread in single file along the well-marked channels, across watersheds, across meers and up canals. This was our training ground and we were well prepared for the Baltic.

The Finnish islands are threaded with tortuous channels that are remarkably well marked, with stick-buoys (no top-marks, so know your colours!), leading marks and white cairns or little lighthouses. Nevertheless there are moments when you are not sure which way to go – but it’s obvious – follow the yacht with the Finnish flag!

The bigger the boat, the better. We entered the Swedish Scargard – a network of islands protecting Stockholm – with only a small scale chart. Moreover our instruments had packed up (battery flat). No problem – just follow the ferries!

Heading South we needed to get around the
Landsort peninsular and make our way down the Swedish coast. Not quite clear about the channel, we noticed a number of yachts sailing nearer to the land. We followed them. To our surprise they threaded between some rocks and a channel opened up behind the peninsular. We had to keep close – this route was not so well buoyed, and looked impossible on our chart. Another turn to port, then sharp starboard, dodge another rock and we’re through – having saved 10 miles!

Another long day and dusk is gathering as we approach a rock-strewn fjord entrance. I think this is the right approach, but… Ah there’s a boat coming up, let’s slow down a bit. Hmm that didn’t work, lets go over to the right a bit and they’ll come past…. Oh damn.., they’re following us.

But seriously…

Nevertheless the ability to navigate our way around the Baltic was not taken for granted. We are equipped with two GPS (fixed and handheld) and twin echosounders (usually at least one is working). We don’t have a log – I don’t trust them (paddle-wheels clog up, trailed lines tangle or give bad readings) and the GPS gives actual speed over the ground. Being short-sighted and colour-blind, I like big, sharp displays, but don’t bother with the fancy mapping models. Apart from the GPS itself, navigation software has not proved to be all that clever, so we stick to paper charts.

Charts are a conundrum – how much detail do you need? I like to have a big planning chart (1:750,000 for the Baltic), which is also adequate for passages across open, deep water. For navigating near coasts or in shoal waters, some more detail is needed. We used mainly Admiralty 1:200,000 charts for uncomplicated coast like Germany, Poland, Latvia, and similar German chats for the Swedish coast. But in the shoal water, rock-strewn archipelago of Estonia and Finland, the large scale portfolio charts are invaluable (though expensive). We are indebted to John Negus for lending his Finnish 1:50,000 portfolios, and Jon Walmsley for Danish and other charts.

Charts can be difficult to find en-route, so it’s best to get them in advance. We hoped to buy most of them at Stegman’s at Keil (by the canal lock), and they are worth a visit – but don’t necessarily have everything in stock. We did have some gaps, and found it necessary to sail in uncharted (for us) waters for some of the time.

Pilot books are another essential ingredient. Many times we used the Baltic Pilot (Cruising Association) along with a small-scale chart to choose a suitable harbour for the night, and find our way in. We also came across the Swedish CA Guesthaven catalogue, which (though in Swedish) contained invaluable pictorial information.

Then of course there’s the Almanac. With no tides and little current in most of the Baltic, we didn’t need this much, which is lucky as I lost our 2004 edition. On reaching the Kiel Canal, however, we had a problem – solved by the purchase of (cheap) German tide tables.

Everyone, it seems, has their own way of navigating, some using technology more than others, some keeping a rigorous log (good, but I admit that I don’t). To me the essence is to regularly know where you are, and always know where you are heading. On passages I mark regular plots on the chart, from a GPS or visual fix. I use waypoints to steer towards unless there is a visual course to steer (in the archipelago there are nearly always buoys, landmarks or leading marks to steer by). The autohelm steers a much better course than I can on long legs – but is not so good in congested waters!