Charts to steer by

Fri, 01/27/2017 - 11:15am

When Samuel Langhorne Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, was young he aspired to work on a Mississippi River steamboat. Clemens, like many of his pals, wanted to be a steamboat pilot. As it turned out he got his wish, and a steamboat pilot named Horace E. Bixby trained the young Clemens as a “cub,” and taught him the nuance of navigating, and how to read the river. It took him two years to receive his license, which had cost him a substantial amount of money to attain. Moreover, this is how the author got his pen name, Mark Twain. His name refers to a water depth of two fathoms — 12 feet — which was a safe depth for a Mississippi River steamboat. If the water depth was recorded at two fathoms, the pilot would call out, “mark twain!” The pilot’s job aboard a steamboat held prestige — more so than the captain — because of the precise knowledge it entailed.

In his book, “Life on the Mississippi,” Twain says, “The pilot had to get up a warm personal acquaintanceship with every odd snag and one-limbed cottonwood and every obscure wood pile that ornaments the banks of this river for twelve hundred miles; and more than that, must actually know where these things are in the dark…” This was and still is a very important and dangerous job. Pilots are the highest paid personnel in the U.S. Merchant Marine, and this makes perfect sense seeing that the cargo of a merchant ship holds tremendous value. Furthermore, the crew’s safety is dependent upon the pilot’s skill.

When ships enter Narragansett Bay, they will often be met by the Northeast Marine Pilot boat which is stationed at Goat Island in Newport. The ships will lower an accommodation ladder to allow the pilot ascent to the deck of the ship, and then on up to the wheelhouse. The captain will then turn over the command of his ship to the pilot until they reach their destination. Like Mark Twain, to learn this particular job, this pilot will have studied and trained by acquiring substantial seatime aboard a vessel of a certain tonnage. Furthermore, federal and state pilot testing have rigorous standards; there is little or no room for error because of the serious nature of the job. Samuel Langhorne Clemens and his pals aspired to a job with a very high bar — it’s higher today.  

Charts of a body of water contain many elements that must be constantly updated (the B. I. Wind Farm wasn't here a year ago). A typical chart will contain many details of the shoreline, including docks and roads. A chart will also have channel markers, soundings, (at mean low water), shoals and wrecks to aid in navigation. A chart of Narragansett Bay dating back to the 1700s clearly delineates all of the wharves along Thames Street, as well as other structures on Goat Island, Jamestown and several other islands in the bay. This particular chart was developed because of the increase in ship traffic; it was surveyed on behalf of the “Board of Trade.” Moreover, this chart was used as an aid for military purposes. If we look at a current chart of the bay, we’ll notice: church towers, bridges, and lighthouses. Each chart also has a compass rose at the top. All of this data will help pilots, as well as fishermen and recreational boaters, make informed navigational decisions.

Today, Block Island Sound, Buzzards and Narragansett Bays — especially in the summertime — are busy with commercial and recreational traffic. Vessels travelling in these waters must pay close attention to their surroundings. Before the digital age kicked in, mariners would consult their paper charts to see where they were going. Today, we can punch up a chart on an iPhone if we choose and of course we have radar, and GPS. Although we have this technology to help us, we still must remain vigilant while making our way to where we are going; things like heavy traffic and fog tend to complicate things. And, technology can glitch out on us.

In the summertime, I sail my boat mostly in Narragansett Bay — it’s a great place to sail with wonderful islands to sail around and it has plenty of good anchoring ground. In addition to recreational boaters, there is lots of commercial traffic coming and going at all hours. Car carriers, high-speed ferries, tankers, tugs towing barges and freighters are a familiar sight. Attention must be paid, and I make it my business to give way to all of the aforementioned.

A car carrier is an imposing sight when they are up close. Last summer one was coming outbound from Quonset Point. I had plenty of hull speed to sail across the channel south of the Pell Bridge and avoid the big target. Sailing close to Jamestown, I noticed a guy in a 30-foot sloop motoring out of the bay on the right (green) side of the channel — the same side as the out-bound ship. As the car carrier was coming under the bridge, the captain blew his horn. Then, I heard him try to raise the aforementioned on Channels 13 and 16 — three times. And, he blew his horn again — two more times. The sailboat had no idea the ship was overtaking him, and he obviously wasn’t monitoring his radio. People get complacent and stuff like this happens. The guy finally saw the ship, which was not able to move for him. There are rules for this kind of thing.  Just sayin.’

On my sailboat, I rely on chart to steer by, it’s a careworn, coffee-stained and tattered chart of Narragansett Bay. Although I’m very familiar with the bay I always keep this nearby. For example, I’m always aware of soundings when sailing around Hog Island or into Mount Hope Bay. It’s good practice to consult my chart when sailing by the Hog Island Lighthouse, or any other lighthouse for that matter. There’s a reason they’re there in the first place, and Narragansett Bay has many of these aids to navigation.

Finally, I feel that if someone put forth the effort to build these helpful structures, then the least I can do is consult a chart to see where they are. ‘Nuff said.