RADAR Class, Alameda, April 21, 2012

Club Nautique offered a RADAR class and we took them up on it.  It consisted of four students and one instructor, classroom for an hour or so in the morning, followed by several hours in the afternoon, motoring the environs of the Alameda Club Nautique yacht harbor.   We each got first-hand practice at setting range rings, radar oreintation (heading up versus north up), Electronic Bearing Lines (EBL), Variable Range Markers (VRM), guard zones, and tracking MARPA targets.  We learned the meaning of Gain (the higher the Gain, the higher the sensitivity and the MORE clutter on the screen), and the Sea Clutter and Rain Clutter filters (the higher each of these is turned up, the LESS clutter on the screen).  The most fun was when the person at the helm was instructed to look at nothing but the compass, and the person guiding the helmsman was instructed to look at nothing but the radar screen, and then the guide was instructed to give the helm instructions to pass through a narrow channel safely by just giving the helmsman directions in the form of degrees of correction to port or starboard.  Fortunately, the instructor was actually looking at where we were, because a couple of times, we had to abort!  Then we switched over to using the chartplotter a little bit, setting waypoints that were synchronized with the autopilot so that the boat steered itself along a pre-set, changing course.

I really enjoyed the class, and felt much more comfortable with RADAR after that.  We even started feeling more comfortable with our own, older version of RADAR on Cool Change.  RADAR really hasn’t changed that much over the years, and it is a very useful tool, probably more so than chartplotters because it tells you what’s out there that is moving in the fog or dark when nothing else can.

However, I still worry that the thing that will get me with RADAR is not anything we learned in this class; instead, it will be the kinds of problems I have witnessed that our student navigators have had to overcome on the fly, and it seems, on every CPM, there has been some fatal flaw in the RADAR that has to be overcome.  In one case, the RADAR wasn’t recognizing the boat as its starting point, so a screen kept coming up that showed the eastern seaboard!  In another case, the cockpit RADAR screen was left on night screen, so it was absolutely impossible to see anything during the day, and unless you knew by feel where to go to change that setting, it was almost impossible to change it.  In another case, the RADAR orientation was showing everything that was on the left of the boat, on the right, and vice versa.  In each event, we had some wiz-kid electrical engineer on the boat that figured out how to correct it, usually in the most adverse of conditions: nighttime, in the rain and wind in heavy seas.  And mostly, the correction wasn’t made by simply utilizing the user-defined controls; rather, the wiz-kid had to go into the initial installation set-up module and basically start over the as installation technician to correct the problems.  Of course, many of these problems, you can’t know are problems until you get out of the marina, because marina RADAR images are just a clutter of boats in no particular direction.  For my navigation testing, I think I might actually charter the same boat the day before, and be sure I have it set up just like I want it!  That is, unless some sneaky instructor slips on in the middle of the night and messes it up just so I have to do it on the fly!

The thing I love about sailing is also the thing that challenges me the most: I am much better at taking my time in relaxed circumstances to resolve a problem; I get too anxious when I have to deal with something complicated and analytical on the fly; yet having to respond on the fly without time for analysis is just what frees me from my otherwise overly analytical self, so I yearn for the freedom such opportunities bring!

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