Kayak Navigation Basics

Taking bearings, triangulation, and a couple of quick tips for navigation.

The last time we had a live session, we talked about maybe breaking down some navigation items. Just breaking them down into easier little nuggets of information. Not too long ago, well, now it has been a long time but it doesn’t feel like a long time I was out on the water with my buds, Felix and Jorge. And while we were having lunch, Felix said, “Hey, let’s just do a quick triangulation exercise.” And it was awesome because we were just sitting around talking, having fun. Why not do something that we haven’t really touched in a while? And this topic I’ve been thinking about for a little long, because it’s very easy to use and is really, really useful when trying to give someone else your position or trying figure out where you are on a chart.

So what I’ve done is I’m here in Bay living room is a very well known to three people in this household. And what we’re going to try to do is try to figure out where we are sitting right now on this chart using one, two or three items of interest that we could see while we’re sitting here on this Bay. One is the coast guard helicopter over by ukulele falls, it’s a very well-known area. Our second item with interest is the Paw Patrol lookout tower. Those Paw Patrol pups are always there to help and it’s very visible from far, far away. And then the third item of interest we’re going to be using is the monument to Mr. Buzz Light year, he’s been a very big advocate when it comes to navigation and interstellar travel.

I know it’s silly, but the idea is when you’re out on the water using either a deck compass or a hand compass, taking bearings to a couple of items that you might be able to see on your chart, and then you can translate what you see around you and figure out maybe and almost pinpoint where you are.

One thing I will mention is when you take a bearing and taking a bearing is when you use either a hand compass or a deck compass or anything, to get a reading to an item of interest that you’re looking at, you do have to remember that from the time that you took the bearing to when you make your calculations, or when you figure things out on your chart, you might be in a different position because the wind or the current might be moving you around. I’m also going to oversimplify everything just so we can get through the concept and the exercise, but we should expand and look into other items that might affect how we take these readings and how you might translate them from your compass to your chart. Things like true north versus magnetic north, how to read a compass rose, et cetera.

When you look at your chart, a lot of times you’ll see things listed on it, maybe it’s a buoy, maybe it’s a lighthouse, maybe it’s a bridge in the distance that you can get a nice, easy reading too, maybe it’s a mountain peak that you could see from the water and it’s very clearly labeled on your chart. Looking around you in all directions and figuring out one, two, and if possible, three items of interest then you can triangulate and figure out a small area in which you might be sitting.

So let’s get on with how to take a bearing. You might have a deck compass, you might have a hand compass. What’s great about the deck compass is that the number you see and the bow of your kayak will be pointing at whatever reading you are getting. Now, if you’re using a hand compass, a hand compass will usually have different parts, but you’re still overall doing exactly the same thing. So with this hand compass, what I will be doing is, there’s a base plan on the bottom and there’s a dial on the top. And once I get the needle pointing at north, I will then keep the dial lined up with the needle and then move my base plate, which happens to have a very useful arrow, I will move that around to take that bearing. So then that arrow will tell me exactly on the dial. What my bearing number is by keeping that needle pointing to magnetic north.

First, we’re going to take our deck compass and make believe that we are turning our kayak around to try to find the three items of interest. So, and look at that helicopter and ukulele falls happens to be at 90 degrees, wow, what were the chances of that? So for our hand compass, we’re going to line up our base plate and we have an arrow right there. We’re going to line up that with our item of interest. And then we’re going to turn our dial until we’re lining up that dial with magnetic north. And that gives us, if we look right here, a reading of around 90 degrees. We have found our helicopter and ukulele falls right here. And we know that it’s at 90 degrees.

So then we’re going to take a straight edge. We’re going to go on that 90 degrees, try to keep that straight edge, put that item, and then draw a line that we think is taking 90 degrees into account. So now that means that at the moment that we took that bearing, we were somewhere on this line, this is also known as the range. We were somewhere along this line because when we were looking at the helicopter, we were looking at 90 degrees magnetic.

For the statue of Mr. Buzz Lightyear and I’d say he comes in at around 180, that’s useful for our calculations. Lineup our base plate with the statue of Mr. Buzz Lightyear, our dial with magnetic north, we see that the reading for our bearing is indeed 180 degrees or magnetic south. Now, when we were looking for Buzz Lightyear is statue at 180 degrees. So what do we do? We find 180 degrees due south magnetic. We’re going to take that same straight edge, try to translate it and then somewhere along this line is where we took that measurement. So that means with two lines, unless the wind and current moved us around, when we took those bearings we must have been somewhere around where these two lines connect.

All right. So Paw Patrol tower, I’d say that’s around 260. So if here’s 270, 260s probably right around over here somewhere. So if we take this spot and we draw, now, on another line on the 260 line, and we extend this line, we can see now that with these three lines and I might’ve drawn things not really to scale, but if we take these three lines and we assume that these we’re all taken right around the same time before anything moved us around. We could say with some kind of certainty that we are somewhere within this triangle.

And that’s the idea of triangulation. We’re getting three different bearings if we can, we put them all together and we try to find out where we are. So the idea of taking bearings is very easy. A deck compass is great in that you’re already pointing at what you’re looking at, but at the same time, that means if you want to turn around and take many bearings at once, you need to spin the kayak around to get all of those different bearings. Where a hand compass on the other hand is a lot easier to just turn your body, take lots of bearings, write things down. But at the same time, that also means that you’re using your hands and you don’t have your paddle in your hand while you’re working with it. So just pros and cons of different compasses.

The last thing I’ll mention is along with your compass, it’s always good to have a grease pencil if possible because that’s easy to write with on any surface, like let’s say the deck of your kayak, even if things are wet, you could always shut down a couple of numbers and then have something quick to look back to. So, as I said, that is an absolute over-simplification of this exercise, but I think the concept is just a really fun one. It’s also very easy to then translate that to someone else if you’re able to give them those three bearings. Someone that’s somewhere else and has exactly that same chart can draw those same lines that you just gave them and figure things out.

So if there’s anything I missed, anything you want to help explain or anything you want to add to this exercise or things that you might do that help or make navigation a little bit easier, please do comment below. And if you have any stories using this method, I’d love to hear them. I hope that was helpful.

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