Compass and navigation practice on Hampstead Heath

Compass skills and navigation can be a difficult skill master, but they are incredibly useful and important, especially in low visibility.  Planning a dive along with compass directions, relative distances and depths, really help in unfamiliar dive sites, or when looking for a specific point of interest underwater.

We have had first-hand experience of using compass navigation to find our way around an unfamiliar dive site; whilst on our liveaboard in Egypt, we were trying to find the wreck of the Ulysses.  The zodiac dropped us off ahead of the wreck and slightly closer into the reef, so we needed to swim a little way out and then drift with the current to end up right on top of it.  So we started swimming away from the reef, letting the current take us along it, towards the wreck.  However, after about ten minutes, no sign of the wreck, and depth increasing over that of the wreck (we knew this from the dive plan), we knew we had gone too far.  Knowing the rough position of the wreck compared to the reef, and the direction of the current, we worked out a rough heading to head back towards the reef, and slightly into the current.  After another few minutes, ascending slightly with the sea floor, we eventually found the wreck hiding behind a ridge of coral.

Physical navigation like this is pretty easy when visibility is good, but it did at least give us some practice.  If we hadn’t taken much notice of the dive map, we wouldn’t have found the wreck; it would still have been a decent dive, since we were over a very pretty coral garden, but not what we were there for.

Luckily, these skills are easy to practice above water, and so we schlepped up to Hampstead Heath with our compass, a map, and a list of directions to practice with.  Measuring out the number of strides to travel a metre helped us to estimate how far we had travelled.

The directions we used were actually for a school geography field trip, designed to teach students some practical things for orienteering.  We focussed on compass navigation, using the rough map as a guide only.  We had a set of bearings and distances to travel to get to certain points of interest around Hampstead Heath.  Rae took up the compass, since she needed the most practice, and off we went.  Once we had successfully navigated across the heath, she felt much more confident about using the compass, what each of the lines and numbers mean, and how to set and follow headings (including reciprocal headings).

Learning navigation and compass skills can be a daunting prospect, or it can seem a little overkill, especially when diving in good visibility.  However, I challenge you to go out above water with your compass, and see if you can really do it!  It can be fun, by the way; why not plot a pub crawl, finding your way between pubs using compass bearings?

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