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There but for the grace of the gods of navigation . . .

2015 February 1

Three stout but dignified denizens of Navigator Heaven were gathered at a local pub for their afternoon pint. “What do you make of that sailing vessel fetching up on Cargados Carajos Shoals near Mauritius?” Captain James Cook, the legendary 18th-century explorer and cartographer, asked his mates. 

“Outrageous! A rancid embarrassment to the navigators’ fraternity!” huffed Vice Admiral of the Blue William Bligh. 

Though his record was blemished by the Bounty mutiny, Bligh had been admitted to Navigator Heaven in recognition of his feat of navigating the open 23-foot launch the mutineers put him and 18 other sailors in on a harrowing 3,618-mile passage to a safe landfall with only a quadrant and a compass. 

His face reddening, Bligh fumed, “Good god, man, those Indian Ocean reefs were charted long before any of us went to sea. Sailors for ages have given them a wide berth. Any navigator who didn’t know enough to do that deserves a flogging.” 

“Settle down, Bill,” Rear Admiral Jack Aubrey said. “There could have been extenuating circumstances.” 

Aubrey was a fictional navigator, but he made it into Navigator Heaven on the strength of the fame as a fighting captain and navigator with exceptional expertise in mathematics and astronomy that he achieved as the hero of the Patrick O’Brian books about the British Navy in the Napoleonic Wars. 

“If you had read Mr. O’Brian’s The Mauritius Command,” Aubrey chided his fellow captains, “you’d know that I’ve sailed thousands of sea miles in those waters. I can tell you they’re prone to weather systems that can bring long periods of low clouds. Did you ever think the poor fellow who hit that Mauritian reef hadn’t been able to get a sun or star sight for days?” 

“You are so out of touch,” an exasperated Captain Cook replied. “Don’t you know they don’t use sextants any more?” 

“Aha!” said Bligh. “That explains it.” 

“No,” Cook said. “They don’t use sextants because they have something better. Navigators in the 21st century get signals from manmade, starlike objects in the sky that tell them where they are on the ocean to within a few meters.” 

“Don’t joke with us, Jim,” Aubrey scolded. 

“It’s no joke,” said Cook. “It’s called GPS, and it not only gives an exact position continuously, it tells the navigator how fast the boat is sailing and what course it’s making. That’s not all—this information, even a symbol showing where the boat is at all times, is displayed on lighted chart on a machine.” 

“If that’s true,” Aubrey said, “how could it possibly be the navigator’s fault? Surely he must have known where danger lurked. Maybe he tried to shape a course away from the shoals but his vessel was a foul-bottomed slug of ship that couldn’t claw away from reefs to leeward.” 

“Wrong again, Jack,” said Cook. “He was navigating a nimble, fast and weatherly 65- foot racing yacht competing in something called the Volvo Ocean Race. They say the boat was reaching at 19 knots when it hit the reef.” 

“So there are no excuses,” Bligh thundered. “I say again, a navigator who commits a seafaring crime of this appalling nature deserves a flogging.” 

“You were always too quick to resort to the lash,” Cook said, “but in this case I have to agree with you.” 

Aubrey chimed in, “Mr. O’Brian rarely allowed the cat o’ nine tails to be used in his books, but I don’t think he ever imagined a navigational blunder of this magnitude. Twelve lashes for failure to navigate.”  

* * * 

The navigator on Team Vestas Wind, the Volvo 65 that was shipwrecked in November on a reef surrounding one of the tiny islands in the Cargados Carajos group, has not been flogged, at least not publicly. 

The contemporary equivalent of flogging is to be chastised in the media, which today includes not just the professional press but the squads of opiners and bloggers who reside on the Internet. That often cruel world has treated the navigator, Wouter Verbraak, with something that resembles tenderness. 

Either sailors are generous, kind and empathetic by nature, or there’s another explanation. I’ll get to that, but first let’s put fuzzy feelings aside and call a spade a spade: What happened on the Volvo Ocean Race leg from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi was a navigational bungle for the ages. 

The reefs are on the charts. The boat had the most advanced navigation hardware and software money could buy. The Dutch navigator was an experienced professional. There is no excuse for the $7 million boat ending up a high-tech wreck on an Indian Ocean atoll. 

No excuse, but plenty of explanations, the leading one of which is that the navigator didn’t see the islands and shoals on his electronic charts because he failed to zoom in enough. 

That breathtaking mistake suggests it was preceded by another one that was almost as dumb—failing to preview a route (at proper magnification) known to pass near hazards. 

This is negligence of a scale that will likely achieve immortality in the annals of misusing technology, yet public reactions have been more understanding than condemning. 

I can explain that. It’s because, like those jack tars who sailed in the days of Jack Aubrey, sailors are superstitious. To harshly judge one of our own for his navigational failings would be to tempt a similar fate at the hands of the fickle gods of navigation as we plot courses through our sailing lives. 

Besides that, most of us get it that though our navigation gizmos are nearly perfect, we who use them aren’t even close. 

The Vestas Wind navigator apparently didn’t get it. Too bad for him—now his chances of making it into Navigator Heaven are slim to none. 

Considering the dings I’ve left on various keels, I won’t be hoisting pints with Jim, Bill and Jack either