I decided to take the ASA navigation class. This is frequently considered irrelevant in today's age of GPS and mobile devices. Many people say about the only time you would use it is in case of a critical failure of all electronics such as, for example, after a lightning strike. So is it worth it to take a class that you are unlikely to ever "need"? I wanted to take it because it looked sort of fun, and because I have two young children, so any additional safety is worth it for me.
The class uses paper charts. Specifically, the class used a 30 year old chart from the Cape Cod area. Maybe I'm weird, but I really like looking through those charts and seeing all the curious things on them. There's something about that big sheet of paper with all those tiny confusing symbols that speaks to me, that makes me want to go explore.
If you are considering this class, the first thing you should know is there is a lot of homework. Make sure you take it sometime when you have a lot of free evenings. (I tried to do that, but for the first time in decades I had to work overtime during the weeks of the class). To me, the homework was not difficult, but it was tedious. You have to measure and mark everything very carefully, because small mistakes at the start multiply into big mistakes at the end of the problem. I worked hard to understand the fundamental reasoning behind the problems, but struggled to do the steps without some clerical or measurement error.
Before we started, the instructor warned us that this class had the lowest pass rate of any of the ASA classes. I think only 50%-60% of the people pass. By the end of the class, I was beginning to think I was about to add to the fail statistics. I don't think I had made it through any of the problems in the homework without a mistake bad enough to get the question wrong. Three or four weeks of that is very discouraging.
I spent the last few days before the test studying the terms and symbols, but there was little I could do to study the actual navigation. I went into the test with almost zero confidence. I just vowed to double check every answer at the end to catch as many mistakes as possible. Unfortunately, three and a half hours into the test, when I filled in the last blank, I had lost my mental resolve to go back and check all my answers. I had decided the whole class is optional, I had learned what I needed, and didn't care about having ASA's approval on my knowledge.
The good news: after all that, I only got one question wrong, for a 98%. And the one I got wrong, I had gotten the correct answer on my worksheet, I just copied the wrong column to the answer sheet. It was really rewarding to have all those hours hunched over a chart pay off.
So is the class worth it? Yes, I think it is. I think even with electronics to guide you, you need to understand the effects of currents and wind. You need to know how to read tide and current charts, and know the navigation symbols, and how to plan a route based on all those factors. Yes, GPS can keep you on track *most* of the time, but how many mistakes do you want to make with your boat, with your family aboard, in a hazardous area?