Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Tricky Terms in Navigation

Good navigation calls for clear communications. We would like to think, then, that the terms we use have precise meanings. Most do, but there are common exceptions that we should know about. This is especially important when learning navigation. We go over here a few important terms that require special attention, either because their meaning changes with context or the definition is more subtle than might be guessed. Significance is hard to rate, so we default to alphabetical order.

Aspect. This describes the heading of another vessel from your perspective. It is a crucial concept in collision avoidance, especially at night as it directly reflects what lights you should see. It is defined as the relative bearing (R) of your vessel as seen from the other vessel. It is measured from 0° to 180° and labeled Red when we are on the port side of the vessel or Green when we are on the starboard side. Thus a vessel with aspect Red 270 means you are looking at its port side. Green 45 means you are looking broad onto its starboard bow. (I did promise tricky—045R is the definition of broad on the starboard bow.)  

Allision. When two vessels underway run into each other it is called a collision. When a vessel runs into a dock (assumed above the water) then that is an allision. Allision is damage causing impact between a vessel underway and something not moving, such as an anchored vessel. This would seem just Admiralty Court jargon—there is, for example, an official “Oregon Rule” that presumes the fault lies with the moving vessel—but there are more subtle implications to this concept that I have always considered fundamental to basic navigation.

The word allision is not in the Navigation Rules. In fact, the only reference in the Rules at all that refers to collisions with anything other than another vessel is in Rule 6 (b) ii, on the things we must take into account when choosing a safe speed when using radar: “the possibility that small vessels, ice and other floating objects may not be detected by radar at an adequate range.” [emphasis added]. Though never stated specifically, clearly the authors of the Rules intended this document to be the guide to not running into anything. And it remains true. If you know and obey the Rules, you will avoid not just collisions but also allisions, and minimize chances of running aground.

Course. Although a very common term whose meaning is often interpreted correctly from its context, it does have a specific meaning whose distinction can matter in some circumstances. This is to be added.  It seems basic, but on reading Bowditch we see this needs attention.  I will add this shortly. We will not likely go astray using it as we might guess it to be, meaning, usually, the way we want to go. 

Course made good (CMG). This is our average course over a specific distance or time period relative to the fixed earth. It is the direction from an earlier position on our track to a later position, regardless of the track between these two positions. It can be something we have already done, such as our track of past positions shown on echart plotter, or it can be something we plan in the future by anticipating the course we will achieve in the presence of current or leeway. It should not be confused with COG. 

Course over ground (COG). This term is known to everyone who uses GPS. It originated as one of the first important derived values we learned from LORAN units. It has, however, been generalized in modern times to a point where it risks distracting from effective communication. It is best thought of as the instantaneous value of our CMG relative to the fixed earth that we read from GPS. Past or future courses are best described as CMG, not COG. The predictor line on our vessel icon in echarting points in the direction of our COG. The trail of dots behind the icon shows our CMG. When we solve a vector problem to account for current we are finding or using our CMG, not COG.

The same distinction should be made between speed over ground (SOG) and speed made good (SMG).

Declination. To a land navigator declination is the difference between magnetic north and true north. To a marine navigator this difference is called variation. In marine work, we reserve declination to mean the latitude on earth directly below a star or other celestial body. We further distinguish declination from latitude by placing the label N or S in front of declinations and after latitudes.

Dead reckoning (DR). This most fundamental of all navigation terms has two different definitions in modern times, both of which refer to a position determined for your vessel without the aid of any piloting data. (1) Position by log and compass alone and (2) your best estimate of your position taking into account everything you know about your boat, the wind, and the waters you sail. The former is found by plotting distance run on each logged course, with no further corrections; the latter accounts for current, leeway, helm bias and sea state.

This distinction is not crucial. A practical implementation is to plot the DR position by definition (1) and then apply all corrections you know about. The distinction lies only in what you call this final position, the estimated position or the DR position. We prefer the latter definition (DR is everything) as there is no real need for a second named position, and it is difficult to coordinate the plotting in a logical manner—correction for current and correction for leeway are plotted differently. In our course we use the old, traditional definition (2), DR is everything you know. 
From a Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson, 1755.

The "new" definition of DR being just log and compass, gained popularity in the early 1900s with the development of gyrocompasses and the first "DR machines." They could only do log and compass.

Note too that contrary to Dutton, Bowditch, and the Admiralty Navigation Manual, the "dead" in dead reckoning does not originate from an abbreviation of deduced (ded). The adjective dead, as in dead reckoning and dead range, dates to at least the early 1600s.  

Drift. Used alone, this means the speed of the current, which can be measured in knots or nautical miles per day. Drift can also refer to the distance an object has moved downwind. When solving vector problems we draw all speeds as distances moved in one hour. Wind drift is sometimes used to refer to the wind-driven current, but in other contexts, wind drift is used to describe leeway speed and sometimes used as a vector to include speed and direction. Spindrift, on the other hand, is the foam blown off the tops of waves. Its first appearance is a good Beaufort Scale benchmark for about 30 kts of wind.

Estimated position (EP). If one chooses to define a DR position as that found from compass and log alone, then anything you do to that position to improve it changes it to what is then called an estimated position. This is common training, though it does deviate from the historical meaning of DR and may add some ambiguity to the plotting. On the other hand, if DR is defined as including all you know about your navigation in the first place (short of piloting), then a DR position and an estimated position are the same.

The term estimated position requires more care when it is expanded to include piloting data, such as a single line of position (LOP) or a depth contour. If you have a single measured LOP, then in its broadest sense, one can define EP as your best estimate of your position taking everything into account, including this one LOP. This is indisputably a sound definition, and indeed the proper guide to position evaluation underway.

The required care comes into play whenever a specific prescription is given on how to do this. This type of EP, for example, is frequently defined as the point on the single LOP that is nearest to the “DR position” at the corresponding time—which immediately drives us back to the terminology. This use of “DR position” cannot mean DR by log and compass alone, because known corrections can take you away from the nearest point on the LOP. Thus this prescription must be worded: the estimated position is the point on the LOP nearest to the estimated position without the LOP.

Even then we must be careful. When you measure an LOP by any means (compass bearing to a lighthouse or sextant sight of the sun) and this LOP does not cross through your corresponding DR position, you know only two things: one, you are on the LOP somewhere, and two, your DR is wrong. We can project that point onto the LOP and call it the estimated position—as you must do on any navigation exam!—but underway, we should remember this is largely wishful thinking. If the single LOP crosses right through the DR position, then you can add to your knowledge that the DR might be right.

Log. This term has several meanings, all related. Verb: Make an entry into the log book (“I logged our mark rounding.”). Verb: Travel a distance (“We logged 130 miles today.”). Noun: Another name for logbook. Noun. Device for measuring distance traveled through the water (knotmeter log, taffrail log, chip log, etc).

True wind. Every meteorologist in the world, and I would hope every navigator in the world, agrees on the definition of true wind. It is the wind speed and direction relative to the fixed earth. For some aspects of sailing performance analysis, however, it can be useful to know what the wind is relative to the water, which in turn can be moving. Periodically we see this later wind referred to as “true wind,” and that should be avoided. We should not even say “true wind relative to the water,” which only muddies the matter. Ben Ellison of pandbo.com has suggested calling the latter the “water wind,” which seems a good solution. Google the phrase “true wind versus water wind” to find extended discussion of this terminology.

Range. This is an important term in navigation with several distinct meanings. It can be used to refer to a specific distance between two points on a chart (“range and bearing from A to B”), also used as distance from vessel to radar target (range rings, etc), but it is also used to mean the maximum effective distance a light shows, or a radio or radar beam reaches (nominal range, luminous range, VHF range, etc). Likewise we refer to the maximum range we can achieve under power without refueling. And of course there can be a mountain range along the coast. Thus there are a whole range of extents using this term. 
Extend a given extent on a chart and you get what the British call a transit, namely the line on a chart between two landmarks or aids, which in US parlance is called a range. A navigational range is between two aids put in place for that purpose; a natural range is any two objects you choose for navigation, charted or not. All navigational ranges show the nearest mark or light lower than the farther one, and a similar convention on ship's masthead lights (forward lower than aft) has led to the nick name “range lights” for the two white masthead lights on a ship that tell us which way it is headed. By watching the space between them we can tell if and how it is turning.

Less often used is the verb to range along a coast, meaning to travel at a fixed distance off.

Relative bearing
Used mostly in radar and sometimes weather work, it means the bearing (0 to 360º) of an object relative to the bow, which is considered 000R.  Thus 090R is the starboard beam, 180R is astern, 270R is the port  beam. The tricky part is the azimuth angle (Z) in cel nav, which is measured (0 to 180º) relative to the elevated pole. This is not a relative bearing! It is a bearing relative to the elevated pole, i.e., relative to 000T in the NH, and relative to 180T in the SH.

Sea mile. A nautical mile is defined as 1852 meters, exactly. A sea mile is a distance of 1' of latitude. We tend to use these interchangeably, which is rarely an issue... unless you are hiding treasures by GPS coordinates in both Alaska and the Galapagos, where the latter has a sea mile that is 50 ft shorter.

Set. This one should not be a surprise. The word "set" has the most meanings in English than any other word, being some 430 as of 2021.  In marine navigation, set is the true direction a current flows toward, but it is also used as a verb (to be set by the current), and also used to refer to the magnitude of the offset. “The set of the current is 200 T, which is causing me to be set off course. The GPS shows my set is 30º to port.”

Tide. Vertical motion of the water is the tide; horizontal motion of the water is the current. We are better off to not ask what the tide is doing when what we want to know what the current is doing.

Velocity made good (VMG). This is a derived term that actually predates LORAN. It began as a sailing performance term, which means your speed projected onto the direction of the true wind, either upwind or downwind. It takes a simple processor chip to compute; no position data are needed. It is still used that way, and in a sense this is the preferred meaning of the term. But with the advent of LORAN and later GPS, this term began to be used as the projection of your SOG onto the direction of your desired course. (Recall speed is just a number, but velocity is a vector, meaning a number and a direction.) Thus we get some integrated instrument systems reporting both VMG Wind and VMG Waypoint, which is tidy enough, we just need to be careful when discussing VMG on the boat. Our main concern arises when we have instruments reporting just VMG. Then we have to look up what it means.

Waypoint closing velocity (WCV). This is the NMEA term for VMG to a waypoint. It would be nice if manufacturers converged on common terminology, but they do not; we do not see this one used very often, maybe because it's harder to say.

Recall that "speeds" are scalar quantities, meaning just one number, as in 5 kts, whereas "velocities" are vector quantities that require both a speed and a direction, as in 5 kts to the NE.

With special thanks to Starpath instructor Larry Brandt for valuable suggestions.


Unknown said...

Thank you for these definitions, David. As a current student in your CelNav course I realize one cannot put too fine a point on it.
Howard Crisp

Woodlands said...

Thank you for these explanations, done with a bit of hummor and extra info, as well as with clarity and precision.

I am just beginning my Coastal Navigation Course. I have the impression that any bearing that has a part of a boat in it (port, starboard, bow, stern, etc.) is a relative bearing, meaning relative to the boat, with the bow being 000 deg, R.

Woodlands said...

Thank you for these explanations, done with a bit of hummor and extra info, as well as with clarity and precision.

I am just beginning my Coastal Navigation Course. I have the impression that any bearing that has a part of a boat in it (port, starboard, bow, stern, etc.) is a relative bearing, meaning relative to the boat, with the bow being 000 deg, R.

David Burch said...

That seems right. Apparent wind angles (labeled port or starboard), for example, are relative angles. Your comment brings to mind a new term, or set of terms, to add to the list above, which I will do. Namely, bearings like "on the bow," or "broad on the starboard bow," remain in the category of well known to those who know it well. Thanks for your thoughts. And another new one we see students working through is the direction described as "viewed from seaward."