Following the Compass Arrow: Navigating Casco Bay

Our captains know their stuff. On a calm, clear day, they know the route to Peaks Island or down the bay like the backs of their hands. But Maine weather isn’t always peaceful. Have you ever wondered how we navigate through fog as thick as pea soup or a blizzard with snow blowing sideways?

The answer is: a trusty compass, a whole complement of gadgets, and our eagle-eyed crew.

Since our earliest days, technology advancements have changed the way we navigate Casco Bay, but our main goal of getting you back and forth to your destination safely and reliably hasn’t changed.

Before every boat had radar on board, captains would have to “navigate by compass and time” – using speed and time to calculate the distance between their waypoints for each of the islands. To do this, they had to factor in things like how strong the current was running, and what direction the wind was blowing.

Today, we navigate using a mix of the old and the new.

Here are a few things on board our boats that we use to help navigate:

  • Compass—the Holy Grail of navigation instruments; keeps our captains headed on the right course. Each boat has a compass mounted right to the helm.
  • Radar—lets us know what targets are around the boat; islands, other boats, and aids to navigation all show up on the screen.
  • VHF Radio—allows us to talk to the Coast Guard, other boats, and our team on the mainland.
  • Chart Plotter—an electronic chart that tells us things like: where each island is located, the depth of the water, and where the buoys are positioned.
  • Depth Sounder—shows us how much water is under the boat.
  • Paper Chart—while the compass is the Holy Grail, our paper charts are our lifeblood—a paper backup to our chart plotters. With our compass and charts, we can go anywhere!

On days when a gale force wind is blowing snow sideways or fog has socked in across the bay, the checks and balances these tools provide are even more important. But we have one more tool at our disposal that most people wouldn’t think of—our deckhands.

Perched high in the wheelhouse, the captain has a 360 degree view of the boat, but in inclement weather you’ll find our deckhands standing watch around the boat—keeping a weather eye on the horizon for any obstacles that may be in the boat’s path.

Navigating Casco Bay is more complicated than turning the boat east away from the city and heading for an island; it requires knowledge of the area provided by charts, a keen eye, and a few gadgets. Thankfully, our captains are expert navigators capable of blending the old paper chart and compass ways with newfangled technology like radio and radar.