Nautical Instruments for Navigation

Nautical instruments for navigation are now high-tech devices that anyone can use with basic instruction. Before you head out on the open water, even if you won't be far from shore, make sure you've got the right navigational instruments on board. Should fog or rough weather take you off course, you'll be thankful for them.

The best instruments for navigation are marine GPS units. A marine GPS uses satellites, just like a GPS used in a vehicle.

A GPS is constantly communicating with satellites in orbit around the Earth. No matter where you are, there are usually six satellites within your line of sight. These satellites transmit microwave signals, which are received by the GPS. These signals enable the GPS to determine your location, speed and direction. GPS units may be handheld or mounted; the mounted GPS units are generally referred to as chartplotters. 

Don't leave port without a GPS. This is the most reliable tool available to help you know where you are and where you're going. It's best to have a device that uses your boat's power supply, with a battery backup in case you lose power. Battery operated models should only be used for short trips when the weather is calm, and you should always have spare, fully charged batteries on hand.

If you'll be heading into the open ocean or operating in foggy conditions, you'll need to have radar on board. Radar works by sending radio signals out in all directions, then listening for them as they bounce back from nearby objects. A GPS will tell you where you're going, but only a radar will tell you if there are boats or islands in the way.

Radar is an expensive investment, because you'll need a radar antenna as well as a base station with a display. Some radars include GPS systems as well. If you're on a budget, consider getting one of these hybrid systems.

Marine Calculators
StarPilot offers celestial calculators for those who navigate at night. The StarPilot units come with software that plots the full sky. It does computations for routine and special navigation. The software also shows heights and bearings of anything in the sea or along inland and coastal waterways. The built-in almanac is accurate from the 16th century to 2100.

Systems like StarPilot are great for those who want to get a feel for navigating by the stars. It's a good idea to back them up with radar and a GPS, unless you've got someone who can keep a careful eye on the waters ahead.

Even if you never leave the safe confines of a large harbor, be sure you have a VHF marine radio. If anything goes wrong, this will be your lifeline to the world. Your cell phone is not a substitute, because you're likely to lose the signal once you get a short distance from shore.

If you're traveling on the open water, be sure to have an HF marine telephone or satellite telephone as well. These are used to communicate with nearby vessels and to keep you alerted to weather advisories and marine emergencies.

If you're a recreational boater traveling in and around the United States, you generally don't need an FCC ship station license for radar and marine radio. If you have an HF telephone or satellite telephone, or if you're traveling internationally, you generally need to obtain an FCC license and be trained in the proper use of marine communications equipment.

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