Mark Wallace's Black Skiff

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Piloting, Part 1...Equipment


Piloting consists of...

... planning where you want to go and the route(s) you’ll take to get there…
... then determining, on an ongoing basis, where are you currently…
... and your direction/speed to get to the next way-point, taking into account wind, current and hazards.

GPS systems are...

  • Reliable,
  • Accurate,
  • Amazingly easy to use,
  • Provide ‘real-time’ feedback on speed, direction and location,
  • Can be inexpensive… (I use the “Cyclemeter” app on my iPhone [less than US$10] which has settings for virtually every sport, including rowing and paddling, and it fulfills all of the characteristics above)
  • …all this, until the battery runs down or you drop it overboard or you leave it in your truck’s glove compartment.

So ‘piloting’ consists of a set of skills you need to safely go from point A to point B on the water, regardless of the state of your GPS. These piloting skills are

  • Fun to learn and practice, and can be life-saving… Magellan, Vasco de Gama, Columbus, Pacific Islanders all used piloting skills to explore the earth… no GPS. Participants in the R2AK, Texas 200, The Everglade Challenge (to name just a few) require piloting skills (in addition to GPS) to be safe and get to the finish line.
  • One other point… knowing and practicing piloting skills makes you much more confident in your ability to safely cruise.

Let’s start with things you could use when piloting.

“Equipment” you may need


The single most important ‘piloting’ equipment you need (personal opinion). With it,
you can

  • maintain a constant direction regardless of fog and/or rain
  • take a ‘bearing’ to any object to help determine your current position and/or speed

See this post on compasses.  We’ll cover using the compass in future posts.


Charts contain a wealth of information that affects your safety and gives you the ability to know where you are and help you plan your route.

Virtually all the information available on chart sources listed below is available on-line. Screen shots can be printed. You can use the “distance” tool in Google Maps to mark your planned route. Here’s how:
Right click on the Google map, left click “measure distance”. A circle appears, drag it to your starting point, right click again at your next way-point and click “distance to here”. Left click to add more way-points. You can move any way-point by dragging. Change between miles and km by clicking the scale in the lower right corner.

"Map" View of Google Map with Route Marked as Described Above
"Earth" View of Same Map

Sources for charts:

Waterway Guide provides all the detail you want for free. However,  you’ll need to print screen shots to have the information on hand (or use your laptop/tablet… battery charge issues again).  Areas covered are Great Lakes, Lake Champlain, Saint Lawrence River, Georgian Bay, North Channel, US East Coast, Bahamas, Cuba, Inland rivers Chicago to Mobile and Gulf coast Florida Keys to Texas.

They also sell printed books of waterway guides for the same areas, spiral bound. There are many other sources for charts on the internet.

Screen Shot of a Waterway Guide Map Showing Ancorages


A time piece, such as a watch with a second hand, can be used to help measure distance OR speed.

Tide and Current Tables

This NOAA site, for the US, contains a wealth of tide and current data, by date, in both graph and text files. In the ‘planning’ stages of a cruise, you could print out the data you need by date and location.

Tide/Current Graph for Barnegat Light Inlet Sept. 19, 2016

Another source of tidal information (as well as wind, precipitation and temperature) is Windfinder. There are both iOS and Android apps available, and it covers over 40,000 sites around the world.

Other 'equipment' that may be useful

  • Small plastic protractor to measure azimuth on charts/maps.
  • Small ruler. 
  • Grease pen to write on acrylic (cover of chart holder).
  • Note that there are other optional tools that you can use to pilot. We’ll cover those tools in posts that focus on specific uses of the tools.

Future posts

We’ve defined piloting as
...planning where you want to go and the route you’ll take to get there…
...then determining your current position…
   ...and your bearing to get to the next ‘way-point’...
...always taking into account wind, current and hazards.

Given that definition, the next post will be on planning.


The information in this (and future posts on this topic of piloting) come from my own experience and David Burch’s book, Fundamentals of Kayak Navigation, published 1987 by The Globe Pequet Press, Chester, Connecticut. There are many other sources of piloting information available on the internet, as well as other books and publications.

The fine print...

I’m not a professional pilot. I try to be accurate and I check my information, but I’m not perfect. This post is for information purposes and is intended to be only a starting point for learning the skills of piloting. As with any activity with a small boat, there is always the opportunity for ugly surprises. Practice the skills under ideal circumstances and you’ll increase the probability of being able to use these skills during an ugly surprise to keep you and your boat safe.


  1. Hi Tom,

    Thinking about this, there are several equipment items I have but only a few that get used. Here's what I have:
    Garmin handheld GPS with Bluechart
    Ritchie rowing compass
    Maptech waterproof charts (and several kayaking charts)
    iPhone with Navionics, PredictWind, MarineTraffic and several weather apps

    For route planning on SF Bay and the Sacramento Delta I use the BASK trip planner (, it has tide and current predictions (from XTide) in an easy to use map.

    On the water my GPS is set for speed and distance display. Speed is most useful, the easiest way to see if you are in a good eddy or wasting energy against the current.

    A paper chart is usually out, but I hardly ever need to check GPS location or compass. Almost anywhere on the bay or delta there are clear landmarks, I can see where I am and where I am going. Do you find the same when in familiar local waters?

    Even things like ferry angles when crossing currents, I usually just eyeball the drift and correct underway. Currents vary across a stream anyway, carefully calculating the angle does not always get it right.

    I stay out of fog as much as possible, that would be different. In clear weather it's like flying VFR, not much instrumentation needed. At least I do carry what would be needed if fog closed in.

  2. Hi Rick... Thanks for the complete list of your piloting equipment and links.
    I agree, in local waters, you almost always know where you are... And I too use (and love) the Richie Rowing Compass...

    The BASK site provides excellent coverage for California... It's very similar to what Windfinder provides.