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Faith in black boxes is no reason to toss your paper charts overboard

2016 July 1

The U.S. Coast Guard has, with an eight-page document published earlier this year, thrown out more than 2,600 years of maritime history. A tradition that dated back to 600 B.C. is toast. Gone. Zip.

In essence, the Coast Guard announced in COMDTPUB P16700-4 that electronic chartplotters are trustworthy and safe enough to replace traditional paper charts completely. You can toss all those big nasty hard-to-store paper charts out because the electronic black boxes are, in Coastie-speak, “sufficiently mature.” I’m throwing down the B.S. flag on that one. Sufficiently mature?  I like to think I’m sufficiently mature for many things, but I don’t place unquestioning faith in black boxes! 

Item: An English driver followed his GPS up a road that kept getting steeper until he stopped at a thin wire fence on the edge of a 100-foot drop. His GPS told him to keep going. 

Large yachts and commercial vessels have been required to carry paper charts by federal regulations, of course, but that’s out the door now. As long as you have a back-up power system for your chartplotter and specific equipment, you can have a paper-free nav station. 

Someone just isn’t making good decisions. Lest you think I’m railing unfairly, the choice to use or not use charts aboard large vessels is entirely voluntary. But apparently more than a few vessels have already converted to ECDIS, more government-speak for Electronic Chart Display and Information System.

Back in early 2014, NOAA decided to stop printing nautical charts after 150 years, leaving it to commercial print-on-demand companies. I find that completely understandable: costs were up, sales were down. Sailors still had access to high-quality charts, just from new sources. 

But eliminating paper charts altogether places a huge amount of faith in black boxes, and the requirement for power redundancy clearly indicates someone thinks the only possible problem can be a loss of power.  

Remember the Apollo 13 astronauts, who famously radioed, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here?”  They had redundant power but they were still seriously in trouble, and it took a traditional unpowered sextant to find their location and return safely from space. What happens on a yacht when the black box literally goes black and you can’t fall back on traditional navigation tools like charts? 

Item: Three women in Bellevue, Washington, followed their GPS back to their hotel one night, but the GPS directed them via a boat ramp and, you guessed it, they sank their rental SUV. Clearly driver stupidity, but the errant GPS didn’t help.

Government agencies apparently don’t talk to each other, either, because the U.S. Navy just wised up: It started teaching celestial navigation again at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The Navy quit teaching it 18 years ago when it felt that GPS was perfect (sufficiently mature?) and who needs a sextant when you can push a button and get your location? 

Well, it now realizes that you can’t hack a sextant. Those GPS satellites would be prime targets for any terrorist with the skills to hack into them. And a warship unable to navigate isn’t much good.

Just a few weeks before the Coast Guard announced its complete faith in electronics, two U.S. Navy patrol boats were seized by Iran when they strayed into Iranian waters. The Navy first said it was a “navigation error,” and then Defense Secretary Ashton Carter suggested “an equipment malfunction.” But gossip in the electronics world suggests that Iran “spoofed” the Navy GPS into false readings, which they’d already done to capture a drone. Whatever the reason, the Navy black boxes led them astray.

I think the Coast Guard has done a disservice by proclaiming that black boxes are the navigation tool of the future. I don’t think I’m particularly hexed, but my computers crash regularly and occasionally lose things into a black void. My television sometimes gets the jitters and pixelates itself into a blur. The digital dash on my car went blank and, while it was frustrating, it wasn’t life threatening. The biggest problem was not knowing how much fuel was in the tank.

But I would hate to be a skipper aboard a chart-free yacht when, with family and friends aboard, the boxes go blank. Stir in an unknown rocky shoreline, large seas and low visibility, and that’s exactly when I want a good old paper chart and the know-how to use it.

All of you who have never had their electronics act up raise your hands. Both of you are pretty lucky. Throwing away paper charts is a colossal boondoggle that’s bound to get boats into trouble and, while I love my chartplotter, I’m keeping my paper charts. 

What concerns me most about the “sufficiently mature” endorsement of GPS and chartplotters by the Coast Guard is the signal it sends to new skippers who may not have grown up depending on paper charts. The message they hear quite clearly is that they can put their total faith in their chartplotters because, after all, the U.S. Coast Guard said it’s OK.  


Me? I’m keeping all my paper charts, even the worn ones. And I know with absolute certainty that, regardless of what it advises the public, the Coasties still have full sets of paper charts stashed in big, flat drawers in its pilothouses. 

Editor's Note: Chris Caswell isn’t alone in his angst over the dismissal of paper charts aboard yachts. A high-ranking Coast Guard official indicated that the public response has the agency planning a modified version.