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Why paper charts? To navigate the story of your sailing life

2014 January 14


are to see my chart collection? Set aside a few hours if you do. That would be for the short introductory viewing. For the full exposition, including explanations of the annotations in my crabbed yet distinctive pencil script and brief tellings of the stories behind the courses marked on the charts, some carefully drawn with proper fix symbols and neatly hand-printed times, course and boat speeds, others looking a bit ragged as though they were created under the duress of sleep deprivation and foul weather, we're talking days.

I've acquired charts from every place in the world I've sailed, and I possess hundreds of them. If I were a chart roller, I'd have to build a special room to store them. As it is, because I am chart folder (the difference between rollers and folders is a left brain-right brain thing), they are relatively compact and there is space for stacks of them among the sails, blocks, anchors, brag flags, line and assorted sailing oddments stored in a garagelike structure referred to by the First Mate as my boat cave.

These are paper charts, of course, and they just became more precious with NOAA's announcement that it is going to stop printing charts like them. I take the news as a bad tiding. We'll still be able to buy charts printed on demand from private sources, but the government's decision to cease traditional chart printing has the look of the first step on a slippery slope descending to a world without paper charts.

I'm not saying we need paper charts for navigation. I haven't used them for that purpose for years. Sure, I carry them on the boat, but that's just as backups for backups for backups. If the primary and secondary GPS feeds, the three handheld GPS plotters and the numerous GPS-apped iPads and iPhones aboard at any given time should fail, well, I have my trusty paper charts. Am I a prudent mariner, or what?

Don't laugh-the sky could fall. For me, the scariest part of that terrific 3D movie "Gravity" was not the impending fate of noble astronaut George Clooney and feisty (and really buff) astronaut Sandra Bullock, but the idea that a storm of space debris like the one that threatened them would wipe out the GPS satellites. I've read it could happen. Now that's terrifying.

Depressed by NOAA's announcement, I visited my chart stash for an uplift and realized that my paper collection is, ironically, sort of a history of electronic navigation. I inherited some of the charts, and they date to a time before there were any electronic means of navigating. But on some of the first of the charts I bought on my own I discovered scribbled references to "RDF fixes."

Folks, let me assure you, the term is an oxymoron. There was nothing fixed about a position you got from a radio direction finder. The fact that I marked positions derived from the assumed identity and bearing of faint radio beacons with the dot-in-a-circle symbol for a fix on those early 1970s charts only confirms my naivete as a young navigator.

I was saved from any serious consequence-like, say, a shipwreck-of my trust in RDF by loran. Its arrival is evident in the cross hatch of lines that began to appear on charts along with the image of a triangular affair identified as loran linear interpolator. Whiz-bang stuff for sure, but for readers young enough to have known only GPS navigation I have to point out that this was not push button navigation.

The lines are called TDs (for time difference) and they are identified by numbers. Radio pulses from loran transmitters flashed numbers on the receiver screen that corresponded to TD numbers on chart. With these you could figure out where you were, not exactly but with more accuracy than RDF. To refine the position, you used the loran linear interpolator.

Due to space constraints and the fact that a chart folder's brain is not well adapted to scientific explanation, I will just give you Wikipedia's definition, which I assure you will be of no help: "Linear interpolation is a method of curve fitting using linear polynomials."

The march of technology saved me from obsessing over polynomials. Loran receivers were soon capable of converting TDs to lat/lon positions. Life was good. And it got better. GPS was invented and I replaced the loran receivers with an early GPS unit that was as big as a microwave oven. And then better yet, GPS chartplotters came along, which explains the absence of new pencil markings on my charts for the last 20 years.

Revisiting my chart trove also brought back some of the glories and ignominies of my yacht racing career. Oddly, a single chart displays evidence of the best and worst of both. On that worn and stained Lake Michigan chart, a string of fixes and dead reckoning positions that leap up the lake in implausibly long increments produced a memory flash of the surfing thrills and spills of the fastest Chicago-Mackinac Race in history. The same chart was used for the following year's race, which as its pathetically close-together position marks attest, was one of the slowest in history. Don't ask about those memories.

The best thing about paper charts is that they are not electronic. They're real, not virtual. You can unfold or unroll them and hold them and read them as the story of your sailing life, long after the electronic track of your latest passage has been deleted from your chartplotter.

So, to the crusaders for a paperless society, I say this is why charts created with ink on paper will never be obsolete. And by the way, the same goes for magazines made that way.

Or so the ink-stained wretch wrote hopefully.