On-Water Navigation Systems: From Humble Beginnings to Modern Marvels

  • Published on October 9, 2023


The art of navigation has been central to maritime history, evolving from basic observational techniques to the sophisticated electronic systems of today. This article delves into the transformative journey of on-water navigation, highlighting its early days and the advanced tools that modern sailors rely on, produced by some of the industry's leading brands.

A Brief Look at Early Navigation

In ancient times, sailors primarily depended on nature for navigation. Coastal navigation was practiced by civilizations like the Mesopotamians and Egyptians, using notable points on the coast to determine their position. The Phoenicians, considered master navigators by the Greeks, sailed the high seas guided by the sun and the North Star.

The introduction of instruments like the sextant marked a significant advancement, allowing sailors to measure the angular height of stars above the horizon. This celestial navigation, though effective, required complex calculations and was soon to be overshadowed by electronic innovations.

The Electronic Revolution in Navigation

The real game-changer in marine navigation was the development of electronic systems. The advent of global positioning systems, such as GPS, GLONASS, and GALILEO, revolutionized the field. These systems provide real-time location data, enabling sailors to determine their exact position with unprecedented accuracy.

Autopilots: Brands like Raymarine and Garmin have been at the forefront of autopilot technology.

  • Practical Use: Autopilots are especially useful for long voyages where manual steering can be exhausting. For instance, during a transatlantic crossing, an autopilot can maintain a set course, adjusting for currents and wind, allowing the crew to focus on other tasks.
  • Example: The Raymarine Evolution Autopilot can adapt to changing sea conditions, ensuring the vessel stays on course even in rough waters.

Radars: Furuno and Simrad are two of the top brands producing modern radars.

  • Practical Use: Radars are essential for navigating in low visibility conditions, such as fog or heavy rain. They can detect nearby vessels, helping to avoid collisions.
  • Example: Furuno's FAR-2xx7 series radars offer target tracking, giving real-time information on potential collision risks.

Integrated Navigation Systems (INS): Leading brands such as B&G and Navico offer INS.

  • Practical Use: INS combine data from GPS, radars, and other sensors, offering a comprehensive view of the surroundings. This is especially useful in congested waters, like busy ports, where multiple data inputs are crucial for safe navigation.
  • Example: Navico's GoFree system allows for wireless control and viewing of navigation data on tablets and smartphones, providing flexibility to the crew.

Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS): Transas and JRC are among the top brands offering ECDIS.

  • Practical Use: ECDIS replaces traditional paper charts, updating in real-time. It can overlay radar data on electronic charts, giving a clear picture of the vessel's surroundings.
  • Example: Transas Navi-Sailor 4000 offers features like route planning and automatic route checking, ensuring the chosen path is safe and efficient.

The evolution of on-water navigation systems, backed by industry-leading brands, reflects the maritime industry's commitment to safety, efficiency, and technological advancement. From relying on the stars and rudimentary tools to harnessing the power of sophisticated electronic systems, marine navigation has come a long way. As technology continues to advance, the future of navigation promises even more innovations, ensuring safer and more efficient voyages for all.