December 22, 2007 in More Logbook, Questions for the Keeper

Question for a river pilot: navigation

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Last night marked the solstice, the longest night of the year. People gathered at the lighthouse, and we built a fire in a chimenea outside on the deck. Hot soup, mulled wine, spicy hot chocolate.  Today, while outside tidying up from last night’s party, a tugboat sounded a light toot on its horn as it approached. I looked upriver to see the tug Pathfinder.  I waited and waved at the tug as it passed by. A couple of people waved back. I checked the time. Ten ’til noon. Must be Frank. He left the party early last night because he had to go to work. “I’ll pass by around noon tomorrow,” he said. Frank is a river pilot. He guides large foreign vessels through the narrow channel of the Hudson River. At the solstice party, I took the opportunity to ask Frank a question that often gets asked of me: Is the lighthouse still used for navigational purposes? I’ve always answered, Yes, the lighthouse still appears on navigation charts. Furthermore, there’s always been a need for a navigational beacon at this location, even though the lighthouse fell into disrepair. After the brick tower became structurally unsound, the light was temporarily relocated onto a steel marker on the outer island until the lighthouse was renovated. Nevertheless, doubters think that the light in the tower is just there for show. They wonder whether lighthouses aren’t antiquated and redundant with modern-day electronic navigation equipment such as GPS, radar, and sonar? To cast doubt aside, I welcomed the opportunity to talk with Frank, someone who actually navigated the river on a regular basis in deep-draft vessels. In answer to my question, he said emphatically, Yes! He explained that the lighthouses were reliable landmarks, more reliable than floating buoys, which can occasionally be moved out of position. Modern onboard navigation equipment, albeit helpful, is no substitute for visual aids like lighthouses. For instance, GPS is ideally suited for the open ocean, but in a narrow channel like the Hudson River, the margin of error in a GPS signal can be the difference between staying in the channel or running aground on a mudflat.

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