Position: 36°07’45″N 115°09’0″W

Having entered the post-truth epoch four years ago, the nautically inclined are now entering the era of post-captaining. Boat owners and their boats can look forward to a time when the experience and nous of a skilled captain is entirely optional. Nay, even undesirable – if you ask the more militantly minded crew members. What!? How?! Outrageous!, you sputter. But it’s true. To find out more, read on.

Apprenticed to a Pilot


Automated steering systems predate electronics by decades. Lashing the tiller aside, mechanical wind vane steering dates back to the early 20th century. Electromechanical devices followed and hand steering on long passages became the thing of lore, or plain bad luck.

Long range weather forecasting keeps an informed crew snugged up in the marina waiting for a weather window. No need to risk spilling your gin on the poop deck when better weather is just around the corner, is there? Of course not!

The introduction of Global Positioning Systems made the complex work of navigation simple. Even novices can find their way from A to B without compasses or slide rules. Captains of Stink Pots and Fornicatoria of all stripes now program in their GPS destinations, switch on the engine and retire below for grog and games.

Head-on collisions miles out to sea are a direct result of attractively placed waypoints and a brutal lack of systems integration. Indeed, there is no way the radar or AIS can instruct the autopilot to stop or change direction without human intervention. Alarms are only inversely useful to the sobriety of the crew. (It’s not that the systems aren’t capable of controlling the engine or steering, it’s a question of product liability.)

Berth of a New Age

With no need to steer, no need to fear the weather, and plenty of refrigeration for drinks, what then is a captain good for? Well, like golf, sailing is both a long game and a short game. Thanks to the gear mentioned above, the long game is easy now. Tournaments are lost on the short game, however. Our ‘greens’ are marinas, where docking tests the uninitiated and bankrupts the uninsured.

Controlling a full keel sailboat in a narrow harbour fighting currents and winds takes nerves of steel, a cool wit, and lots of practice. My buddy Mark is blessed with an actor’s voice. He would project his fear of reversing into a slip every time he docked his Catalina. “I hate this!”, he would mutter. His voice echoing across Constitution Marina loud enough to be heard high in the cheap seats.


Assisted Docking

Fret no more, friends! The final nail in the captain’s coffin was just announced at this year’s (online) Consumer Electronics Show. Volvo Penta says it has solved the docking challenge. Assisted Docking is the answer to every first mate’s reluctance to mutiny. Nothing now stands between a captain’s leadership and bloody insurrection. Not only will electronics guide you to your destination, they will dock your boat and all but snug the lines.

“Assisted Docking is a hybrid between automated docking and manual docking,” says Ida Sparrefors, Director of Autonomous Solutions and New Business Models at Volvo Penta. “Even though, in some ways, it would have been easier to implement full automation, the beauty of this system is that it gives the captain enhanced control. With our team of experts – from software developers to test drivers – we have made it behave intuitively in all situations, so that anyone can feel like a seasoned captain.” – Volvo Penta press release. (Translation: Our lawyers told us to leave control in the hands of humans. We need to blame someone when things go wrong.)

Wither the Captain?

What then should the redundant mariner do with his/her/their experience? Whittle? Braid dock lines? Tell tall tales of how sailing used to be? Arrgh! No. The last captains will reach for their accordions and Jew’s harps and strike up a tune. A sea shanty that reminds the young of years past when sailing was a grand adventure. Man against nature! Rum, sodomy, and the lash! Off to Davy Jones’s locker, you preening electronic bilge rats! Arrgh, mateys!

And Now This…



  1. A trenchant rant indeed. If ever they can get past the lawyers, we’ll reach the nonparticipating age.

    As you recline on your couch at home, the AI on your boat will pop up on your spectacles and say, “Hey Cap, what a lovely day to sail to Nantucket,” to which you reply, “Right you are, matey, let’s do it!” Then you say, “Spectacles, VR on,” and you settle back into the softer recesses of your couch. Soon you perceive the familiar sights of taking departure from your home port, and you’re out among moderate seas, turning your head this way and that to watch the dolphins play and the lovely boats, bigger and sleeker than your own, sail by. “Beer time,” you holler, and at once a babe pops out of the companionway holding out a cool bottle of Bavaria’s finest. You actually take the bottle, unaware that what’s handing it to you is a regular BarMaid servo-mechanism from your own kitchen. The scent of good salt air, dancing around the bottle, keeps you from noticing that the beer is not from Bavaria but the Bud plant on the Merrimack.

    Really, the only thing that assures you that you own a boat is the parade of ponderous bills from what purports to be a boatyard. But in truth, it’s all software, as soft as the couch that enfolds you.

  2. I had a call from a delivery driver last year asking where our house was. I asked him where he was so that I could give him directions. All the information he could give was that he was outside a white house which had a red car in front of it, his brain having been entirely wiped by use of sat nav. Don’t let the machines take over…..

    Sarah Northcott
  3. As always, Mike, you’ve given us a lovely read! I laughed and laughed—you clever man! Thanks for the respite from the need to navigate the tumultuous sea. Sigh… and a beautiful song, to boot.

  4. Ah Michael…. the raft of the Medusa..
    Thanks so much for continuing to write.
    I am so sorry for Phillips’ passing.
    Time is indeed a privileged task.

    Sending our best from SoCal.


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