Ship Captain Travels the World — with Math in Tow

May 26, 2020

From navigation to fuel calculations, math is essential to sailing the sea

Ah, the romance of the sea. It beckons us from the time we’re young. Children play captain (or pirate), imagining swashbuckling adventures, colorful foreign ports and exotic new cultures. Young people typically abandon their dreams of the sea for more practical pursuits, but not Robert Quick.

Quick did start his career typically enough: With a bachelor’s degree in international politics/business, he held positions in advertising, publishing and food brokerage. But the skills he learned about wind velocity and navigation during a short stint in the Canadian Air Force never left him and in 2004, he decided that yachting was his future. By 2015, he had obtained his Yacht Master Unlimited license, certifying him to traverse the seas as captain. Now hired to skipper pleasure cruises or to carry cargo, he sees the world from the wheelhouse or the deck. It’s a cool career, one that sparks intrigue even in adults. We asked Quick about his life as a captain and the role that math plays.

Mathnasium: What’s the best part of your job? Would you recommend it to young people?

Quick: I love the travel, meeting new people, being able to live in places that you only read about.

I lived at the Chelsea Dock in New York City for two summers. On my nights off, I could wander around New York and not have to worry about anything. I've lived in Rome. I lived in Venice — two weeks on San Marco Square. When I was done working, I could go wander around San Marco and have coffee or visit the Uffizi gallery.

The radar horizon from a ship is all math!

Caption: At night in coastal waters, captains rely on radar to ensure that he ship doesn’t run aground. The atmospheric pressure and water vapor affect the range at which objects are detected. See radar horizon.

I would recommend this career to anyone who wants to see places you're not going to see sitting in an office. It's a great way to see the world with somebody else paying for it.

M: What kind of math do you need to know to captain a ship?

Q: There are all sorts of math in navigation. There’s dead reckoning, great-circle navigation and celestial navigation, for sure, though GPS is what guides ships nowadays. The GPS, satellite, sonar, radar, geo-tracking systems — that's all math.

A screen shot of a computer

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Caption: Modern ships rely heavily on technology, but captains must understand the math behind these systems in case they fail.

You’ve also got to figure out your optimum speed. We use the DRT pyramid: Distance on top, rate of speed and time on the bottom. With that, you can figure out anything.

Distance = Speed x Time. If you have two of the variables, you can figure out the third.

We also use a lot of ratios and measuring. For example, how much fuel to take on, how much oil we need, ratios on motors and propellers and pumps. Then geometry comes in when you're laying out your track — where you want to go — on a map or a chart.

And, of course, accounting is important. I manage the budget of the entire operation. I take the money given to me and at the end of the month, I need to know where I've spent it, what I have left, what I have in cash versus what I have in the bank. I also spend a lot of time scheduling different crews: to clean inside and the exterior, the galley crew that prepares food and the engineering guy. Scheduling itself is mathematical.

M: In 2017, several U.S. Navy warships had serious collisions. At least for a while after that, commanders required sailors to use old-fashioned compasses, pencils and paper to track potential hazards.

Traditional navigation used a compass and paper charts to determine location and passage. This has largely been replaced by electronic guidance systems using GPS.

Q: Even with technology, you still have to be able to sit down in front of a chart, make sure that there's enough water displacement under your ship, there are no rocks in front of you, and no other boats coming. Even in the middle of the Atlantic, you might not see a boat for three days, then all of a sudden you’re on a direct collision course! It’s just the weirdest thing.

M: How did you experience math as a child?

Q: I had a hard time with math. My father was great at math and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t. He gave me a really hard time, and that just pushed me further away from wanting to do it. My teacher acted as my tutor in math, and my sister helped me as well. The fact that I ended up having to use it more in yachting was surprising to me. But I learned to like it because it had a purpose to it. I think you have to find how to connect math to a kid’s interest to get them to do it.

M: What’s your next step?

Q: I’m looking for a bigger boat and I want to go back to Europe. I spent four years in Beirut, Lebanon, and I quite liked it. So, I'm looking for that area again, maybe Cyprus. When I can't do this job anymore, my skills in handling a crew, maintenance and scheduling will transfer well to property management. So, I will probably go live on someone's property somewhere, look after their boat and manage the property for them.

Being a ship’s captain is a nomadic career. In any given month, Quick might be in a different location. It’s not for everyone, but for those willing to learn math, as he did, it offers a life that most can only dream about.

Just for fun:

Mariners' Museum: The Ages of Exploration

Can You Name 10 Tools We Used to Navigate the Seas Before Electronics?

See more articles on “Cool Careers Using Math”


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