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Why Navigators Can’t Sleep

Vol. III, No. 72

Pajaros Point, on Virgin Gorda. Photo by Alicia Raish.

Pajaros Point, on Virgin Gorda. Photo by Alicia Raish.

The navigator is in charge of knowing where a vessel is at all times. That’s a pretty important job. It is especially important, and more difficult, in the dark when landmarks are not visible.

Navigators are also in charge of figuring out which way to steer – not just to reach a destination, but to avoid stationary objects along the way, such as rocks, reefs, sandbars, outcroppings and even whole islands. That’s a lot of responsibility. One miscalculation can spell disaster.

Nowadays navigators use modern electronic instruments to do the tedious chore of plotting and tracking a course. GPS has been a godsend to navigators. Its use of satellite technology is far faster and more accurate than old school triangulation on a paper chart or the even less accurate technique of dead reckoning. No doubt, GPS has already saved many lives and boats. It is a terrific tool – when it works correctly. But what if it doesn’t? What if there is an electronic glitch? A short-circuit? A blown circuit breaker? A dead battery? A bad switch? A corroded terminal?

Wise navigators, ones with plenty of sea miles under their belts, know not to rely too heavily on any one thing. They cross check constantly to be sure that all things, electronic and otherwise, agree. If the GPS indicates that a lighthouse should bear due east, for example, a cautious navigator gets out his trusty old–fashioned hand-bearing compass and verifies for himself. The wise navigator is a skeptic, assumes little, and expects the unexpected. Vigilance is one of his most important attributes.

hart. Photos by Alicia Raish.

Pajaros Point on a nautical chart. Photo by Alicia Raish.

On a recent visit to the Caribbean I hiked to a remote spot on Virgin Gorda (in the British Virgin Islands) known as Pajaros Point. It is the easternmost point of the island. It is also the western side of the Anegada Passage. The Anegada Passage is one of the longest stretches of open sea between the hundreds of islands (the Lesser Antilles) which stake out the Caribbean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean to their east.

The Anegada Passage is roughly 75 nautical miles wide, stretching from St. Maarten on the east to the British Virgin Islands to the west. For boats coming up-island (northward) the more treacherous side is the definitely the western edge. That is where the vast coral expanse of Horseshoe Reef looms just beneath the surface. It is widely known as the graveyard of the Caribbean, where hundreds of ships, yachts, and drug-runners have come to grief over the centuries. It is also an underwater treasure trove from the legendary days of Caribbean pirates.

For an up-island bound vessel to reach the safe protected passage of the Sir Francis Drake Channel in the B.V.I., it must first squeeze through the narrows between Horseshoe Reef and the rocky unforgiving promontory, Pajaros Point. In daylight it is straightforward enough. All is clearly visible when the sun is high. But at night, navigators depend on a man-made light, a critical land-based navigational aid on Pajaros Point. It is the only navigational aid of any kind on the western side of the Anegada Passage. As an old charter boat captain with decades of experience in these waters, I can attest that this is one of the most important navigational aids in the Caribbean. But, as I discovered on my hike, it was badly damaged and evidently had been out of commission for some time.

The light on Pajaros Point is not operational at this time. Photo by Alisha Raish.

The light on Pajaros Point is not operational at this time. Photo by Alisha Raish.

In chatting later with old friends, West Indian locals, one recalled sailing up-island two years ago, approaching Pajaros Point at night. He looked for the light to guide him, but never saw it. He was lucky to have had a bright moon that night and good “night eyes”, so he made it through. His passage, interestingly, was just a couple of months after Hurricane Irene went through the area (yes, the same Irene which brought havoc to Connecticut in late August, 2011). Perhaps Irene’s wind finished off the rusted pole and brought the light down onto its solar panels. The timing fits. We can only speculate.

We wonder how many other night navigators have searched for this light in vain. Experiences like this further explain why navigators sleep soundly only on shore. They know. Nothing is 100% reliable.