Navigating the Ocean in a Sailboat

Navigation is often one of the most feared aspects of sailing. If you are out in open water, understanding direction can be a dizzying process. Before gearing up for an adventure, you should learn basic navigation skills—reading a chart, plotting a course, and steering accurately by compass. Once you start sailing on your own, you should assemble a kit with essential navigation tools. This will be especially helpful if you are planning to rent boats—few rentals have navigation equipment (other than a potential built-in compass), so you should always bring your own. Below is our recommended list of tools and equipment to keep in your navigation kit.


  • A hand-bearing compass. This simple compass is fitted with a sight. To use, you point it at an object and read the direction to that object off the compass. Take bearings of two or more objects, plot them on your chart, and find your location by seeing where the lines cross. This is a great way to check your location if you do not have expensive technical equipment. However, this strategy does not work well for open water.


  • Parallel rules. This tool is two rulers hinged together so that they remain parallel with the distance between them is adjusted. Before your trip, use the rules to determine the latitude and longitude of key locations—where you’re sailing from, where you might want to go, and your destination. Write these on the chart and draw lines between key points.


  • A chart of the area you’ll be sailing. At this point, we’ve mentioned a chart two time. Purchase a waterproof chart in the largest scale you can find. This will cover a small geographical area with a lot of detail. If you have a marina membership, you may have access to this tool for free. If you plan to sail the same area multiple times, use a plastic or laminated copy and work with dry erase markers.


  • A handheld GPS. This tool will help determine where you are and how far away your destination will be. This should be your primary method of navigation. However, it is essential to have the other items in this kit in case your GPS fails or breaks during the trip.


  • A handheld marine VHF radio. VHF is the fastest way to get help in the case of an emergency. The Coast Guard, marine patrol, the harbormaster, and other authorities monitor VHF channel 16. This is also a great tool for receiving weather reports and forecasts. A basic waterproof model is relatively inexpensive but be sure to keep replacement batteries on board. Always replace your batteries before a long trip.