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The last of the paper charts, and the memories that go with them

2020 March 1

It was a quarter of a century ago but it seems like yesterday.

We were 50 miles into a 120-mile overnight passage bound north by northeast. Our homeport lights had fallen below the horizon  so on this cloudy, moonless and windy night and, apart from one southbound freighter, we were alone in the dark.

I was plotting our position every hour on paper charts. The wind speed and direction had been steady, so we were fetching the rhumbline: prior positions predictably dotting the course on the chart. However, conditions had started to change shortly after 1 a.m. The breeze backed unexpectedly and increased from 12 to 15 knots, and with a forecast predicting heavier winds and waves on the nose to come, we had taken the lift and headed more north than east, so that we might still make the course later.

But at 2 a.m., when the LORAN-C coordinates pointed my navigational protractor to a position eight miles west of the rhumbline, the giant error seemed barely plausible. Had we added many miles and hours to our passage unnecessarily? Still, I drew a dot, recorded latitude and longitude, wave state, Beaufort scale, and made a note to check my work again at 3 a.m. On deck, the crew agreed that we should wait another hour before changing course again. The boat was happy, the sailing was spirited. A rough idea of location was good enough.

Indeed, LORAN-C and the protractor are but distant memories for the chronologically gifted, and the paper chart will soon be too. The NOAA recently announced that electronic navigation has officially won the war and traditional paper charts will be phased out by 2024 (custom printable charts will be available). We will all use screens and satellites to know our exact position from now on. No need to even carry a pencil.

And while the convenience, accuracy and efficiency of digital sailing is unquestionable, its greatest disadvantage, in my view, is its ephemerality. We remember things when we write them down. It’s much more difficult to recall what we see on a screen.

Case in point: Last summer I was determined to download and store the XML files from our GPS and chartplotter. The system saves location data continuously and if one develops good file management habits, it is possible to carve up the tracks to represent legs of a voyage, weekends on the water, or individual windward-leeward course races. So I religiously saved the files so that they might be imported into Google Earth later. I sent some to myself via email, some landed on a USB stick and others on a file-sharing server.

Once assembled, the data would become a visual version of my beloved logbooks. I imagined myriad ways in which the resulting maps might be used. I could text screenshots to newbies as a way of showing them where they went on their first sailing trip; our racing crew could reconstruct tactics—like footballers with touchscreens on the sidelines—to adjust our game plan and improve performance; we could combine maps with selfies to create Instagram collages of our adventures.

Best laid plans.

Now I’ve got files stashed throughout the cloud and only cloudy memories of the sailing we did last season.

But I vividly recall heading below at 3 a.m. 25 years ago to get another fix, plot it on my paper chart and make another entry in the log. I took special care to transpose the coordinates reported by the LORAN-C receiver and when my dividers landed on a position that was just three-tenths of a mile left of the original rhumbline, I was relieved to have resolved my prior mistake. I drew an “X” through the earlier fix and made a note to re-confirm the correction at 4 a.m., which I did. Later that day, we arrived safely and on time and toasted the passage and the start of an unforgettable cruise.

We still religiously carry our tattered paper charts whenever we go offshore. So every spring, I am privileged to relive the details of the night — a long time ago — when I swapped two digits of latitude, and then I drew a dot, a circle, and finally an “X” in pencil on our priceless, memory-making paper charts.