Sailing 101: Know Your Navigation Tools

Ahoy Sailors, now you know what not to do while sailing. Your next lesson is a breakdown of manual and analog navigation tools, how to use them, and how to keep your boat on track. Then, stay tuned for your next lesson, which will explain how to use a VHF radio.

Navigating a boat is nothing like navigating a vehicle on land. There are no lanes or roads, only a few signs other than basic navigational markers that outline significant channels, and you may have to contend with fog or an inability to see land or landmarks. Becoming a marine navigational expert takes years of accumulated knowledge and advanced learning. However, if you have a firm grip on the basics, learning how to navigate a boat in most inland and nearshore waterways in average weather conditions becomes very doable.

Navigating a Boat

  1. Decide on your method of navigation: electronic or traditional/analog navigation.
  2. If using electronic navigation, start by operating your GPS or chartplotter.
  3. Note your real-time position, speed, and direction of travel.
  4. To get from point “A” to point “B,” create a waypoint or a stopping point on your journey.
  5. String waypoints together to create a route; utilize autopilot when applicable.
  6. Use a compass, charters, parallel rulers, and dividers for traditional navigation.
  7. Stay within sight of land and use major landmarks as points of reference.

Electronic Marine Navigation Further Explained

Modern tech is to thank for the GPS/chartplotter. First, it made navigation much easier to understand. You can pull up an electronic map, which shows your real-time position, speed, the direction of travel, and more.

Locating your position is as simple as looking for the boat icon or GPS coordinates on-screen. However, to get from point “A” to point “B,” you’ll have to create a waypoint.

  • Depending on your chartplotter’s advance, this could mean scrolling a cursor across the chart, then creating a waypoint by pressing a button.
  • In other cases, you might have a touchscreen and only need to tap the position you’d like to make a waypoint.
  • Next, you’ll want to press a “go-to” button or give the screen a swipe, per your chartplotter.
  • With the navigation from your present position to the waypoint initiated, the chartplotter will provide you with a compass course to steer. Most chartplotters also have one or more steering screens to choose from, which will display both the preferred compass course and the one you’re currently following.
  • Use the chartplotter menu to pull up this steering screen, and you’re ready to follow the unit as you steer an accurate course to the waypoint. You can also plot multiple waypoints and string them together throughout a route.

The most important thing about creating waypoints and routes and then navigating to them is to look closely at the chart. In addition, make sure you won’t be trying to cross any rugged obstructions like land, restricted areas, or waters that may not allow your boat its minimum draft, which is how much water your boat needs to avoid running aground.

Traditional Marine Navigation

Electronics can and do fail, so it’s also essential to understand the tools you need in case of analog navigation and keep them aboard your boat at all times. These tools include:

  • A compass
  • Charts for the waterways you travel
  • Parallel Rulers
  • Dividers

As long as you’re within sight of land and major landmarks, you can figure out where you’re going with these instruments.


A compass tells you which direction your boat is heading in, north, south, east, or west, as measured in degrees relative to magnetic north. There are 360 degrees representing a full circle. So, zero degrees on the compass is north, 180 degrees points south, 90 degrees to the east, and 270 degrees leads to the west. So, your compass will tell you what direction you’re traveling at any given time. In navigation, bearing is the horizontal angle between the direction of an object and another object or between it and that of true north. So, you’ll be steering a zero-degree bearing if you’re cruising to a restaurant for lunch directly to the north. If it’s to your south, you’ll drive a 180-degree bearing, and so on.


Charts are just maps of the water and waterways. Charts have unique markings for water depths, channel markers, lighthouses, and restricted areas. NOAA produces charts for US waterways which can be viewed online for free but to get printed versions, you must purchase charts or books of charts, for larger areas, from a NOAA-certified agent. You can also pick up charts and chart books for your local waterway in virtually any marine supply store.

Parallel Rulers

Parallel rulers are two rulers attached by a pair of swiveling arms, so you can swing the rulers close together or far apart while consistently remaining parallel. You can walk the rulers across a chart by doing so repeatedly. This is important because it will allow you to determine the exact compass bearing of any course you may want to steer. All charts have a compass rose with all 360 degrees printed on them. Place the ruler on top of the chart, on the course line you’d like to steer. Then walk the rulers to the compass rose. Now you know what compass bearing you need to steer your boat on to run the course.


Dividers have two arms attached at one end and can be pulled apart to different widths at the other. These are used to measure distance. All charts have a key that shows scale by miles and nautical miles. Hold the dividers up to the scale and pull them apart until the arms width equals the chart scale for a mile or any increment of miles. It is common to see one, five, ten, or even 20-mile increments depending on the chart’s scale. When the dividers are set, they can be used to measure the distance between any two points on the chart.

Marine Navigation Basic Tasks

With these tools in hand or at the helm, you can accomplish three basic navigational tasks: figuring out where you are, where you want to go, and pursuing the course to get there.

Where are you at?

  • Locate three charted landmarks like navigational aids, bridges, or water towers on shore to figure out where you are.
  • Point your compass (pointing your boat unless you have a handheld compass) at these landmarks one at a time.
  • Record the bearing.
  • Then set your parallel ruler on the compass rose to match the bearings and, one by one, walk them until they intersect with the landmark for the corresponding bearing. Then draw a line down the edge of the ruler.
  • After doing all three lines, they will intersect to create a small triangle, and that’s your location.

How to Navigate to Where You Want to Go

This is a matter of identifying your location and destination, then determining the corresponding compass bearing between the two locations. Finally, set your boat’s compass to match the bearing, and you’re all set.

Following a Course

Now that you know how to get a bearing, following the course is easy. Of course, it would help if you steered the boat to keep the compass on your desired bearing. You’ll notice that keeping a boat on the course can be difficult, especially with smaller, faster boats. However, if you can keep your path within five or so degrees of the intended route, you should consider it a job well done.

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