I’m unreasonably proud of this tatty piece of paper.

The world’s scruffiest pilotage plan

Pilotage is about close-in navigation, like finding your way into a harbour or through a restricted channel. It’s fun. Or it’s fun when it’s going well, anyway. When it’s not, it’s deeply frustrating and/or stressful.

The key here is to be able to identify things you can use to fix your position and work out where you’re going. Being able to take a bearing on something is great, but it has to be something you can identify a) on the chart in order to calculate what the bearing you should be following and b) in real life so you can work out where it is to take that bearing. There’s a brilliant industrial tower just north of Gibraltar bay known as 232 (it’s 232m tall) that you can see from pretty much everywhere; that gets used a lot. Compare that with the lighthouse at Estepona which is great after dark, but in daylight is a dull brown that vanishes into the background the moment you take your eye off it.

The scrap above was from a night pilotage exercise. The reason it made me so happy was that I was given a starting point (a specific green flashing buoy outside Algeciras harbour) and an end point at the north end of the bay, with the condition that I had to avoid a certain area in between. And I had to do this in the dark.

If you’ve ever looked along the Thames at night, you’ll have an idea of what I was looking at. There’s a major bustling port to the west with large vessels and ferries constantly coming in and out, and robots offloading their cargo 24/7. There’s a whole city behind it, full of life and lights. There’s a refinery and other industrial buildings around the north with blazing lights and dozens of chimneys, La Linea in the north-east, and Gibraltar in all it’s glory down the east edge of the bay. And then there’s me with a hand-bearing compass and a list of light sequences and bearings on a scrap of paper trying to provide directions to a helmsman still traumatised by his own (eventually successful) attempt to get us to from his starting point to mine, struggling to pick out a few tiny red, green and yellow lights blinking slightly differently to all the rest.

I’d written down “Fl 2+1 G” as something I might find near my starting point and lo; out there in the darkness there was a green light giving 2 flashes followed by one more every 10 seconds. And nearby, a single flash of green every 5 seconds. I’d found my preferred channel marker and starboard lateral mark. I wasn’t completely lost yet.

So, The Plan ™: Head off on a bearing of 020° magnetic and use a back-bearing of 200° on the single flashing green mark to keep me on a straight course until I could spot the 4 flashes of green on my target mark (Fl.4.G11s). When the east cardinal mark (Q3.10s) was due west of us, turn starboard onto 065° and head that way until I saw one of 2 target lateral marks flashing red 3 times in a row. There’d be a south cardinal off to port if I was going in the right direction after the turn (VQ6+LFl), and 3 flashes of green near the end point to confirm I was in the right place (Fl3G). The big special mark off to the right (Fl4Y) was the thing I was trying to stay away from.

What made this so joyful was seeing how a theoretical exercise on a chart became real, from playing around with ideas about how I might find my way around in the dark (“ooh, there might be a transit between an occulted green light and 3 yellow special marks in the port I can use as a guide!”) to actually using the plan to find my way around in the night ( “Shit, I can’t see any green lights and there are billions of yellow ones…”). And it actually worked. Thomas dropped me on my starting buoy nicely so it was easy to identify. When I started picking out the waypoint lights from the background, the grinning started. The game shifted from “Head that way and let’s hope…” to “Helmsman, you see those 4 red flashes to the left of the green? Head for that”.

This was a really simple exercise, and I’m sure anyone who’s done it for real is seriously unimpressed by it, but making the connection between “Q310s on the chart means it’s an east lateral mark” to “That’s 3 white flashes… I know where I am :)” was exhilarating.