Home . Articles . Columns & Blogs . On the Wind . Paper charts hold secrets that modern GPS units can’t

Paper charts hold secrets that modern GPS units can’t

2020 September 1

Didn’t you cut it a little close to Point Loma?” my friend Jon said on the phone the other day.  

“What are you talking about?” I said.

“I’m looking at the course you laid out to clear Point Loma for a trip from Alamitos Bay to San Diego and I can see from your penciled course line that you didn’t realize that there is often a breaker line off Point Loma and sometimes sneaker waves appear out of nowhere,” he said. “Every San Diego skipper knows to give it a wide berth.”  

And then it became clear.  

A month ago, I discovered I had three copies of NOAA chart No. 18765 that covers the approaches to Point Loma and San Diego Harbor. If I tossed out two, I could gain huge “clearing out” points with She Who Must Be Obeyed.  But SWMBO, being of practical nature, said, “These would make great nautical wrapping paper.”

The room I was supposedly clearing out is my personal bat cave. Packrats got nothin’ on Caswell. Squirrels and their acorns? Small potatoes. I only open the door to toss treasures inbound. In the garage, I have a plastic tub that I keep leftover parts such as a bent shackle. Why?  Because I never know when I’ll need a bent shackle to hold up a $20,000 mast or to connect the anchor that is holding me off a rocky shore on a windy night.  

Back to the chart. SWMBO had wrapped Jon’s birthday gift in it. He flattened it out and looked at what I thought was a quite seamanlike plot going south, with Xs marking my fixes. This being a night trip aboard a 28-footer, I thought I’d done pretty well. He found that I was daring the sea gods by cutting it too close. 

I was so busted.

If I’d had a modern electronic chartplotter, I would have gotten away with it.  But I grew up with paper charts and they provide all the security that a favorite blanket has to a 2-year-old. I do not want to give up paper charts.

Yet I see that NOAA is planning to stop printing charts to focus on Electronic Navigation Charts.  

And before you bury my dear editors of SAILING with angry letters demanding me on a stake amidst burning paper charts, yes, I know this isn’t going to be completed until 2025.  And, yes, I know you’ll still be able to buy print-on-demand paper charts. But there are so many things you can do with a paper chart that is difficult unless you have a chartplotter the size of the 80-inch TVs favored by sports junkies. 

I know that one of the reasons for digital charts is that they are now legal aboard commercial ships, but I also know that they are only legal as long as there is a fully redundant chart system aboard. Some ships have gone to secondary chartplotters that run off battery power to provide back-up. 

Still, I’m amused that many ships continue to use paper charts as their back-up system. Just as I was amused when the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis stopped requiring their midshipmen learn celestial navigation. They didn’t need it, of course, because they had chartplotters. They soon discovered that bad guys could scramble their chartplotter signals. So, today’s middies are once again standing on a lawn at midnight in The Yard desperately searching for Polaris.  

My move into the electronic world has not been easy, starting with the transition from manual typewriters to electric, where I discovered that leaning on the keys resulted in hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.  Computers?  I was lucky to have an 8-year-old down the street who was a gold mine of information and help.

The nice thing about paper charts is browsing through them. I can take a chart and just enjoy imaginary voyages, quiet anchorages, perhaps find some good snorkeling. I don’t like cuddling up with a cold black box but then I’ve never understood those who can watch a movie on a 3-inch
cellphone screen.

Magic boxes do have some wonderful features. At the touch of a button, I not only get my exact position within a few feet, but they also reel off speed and distance without testing my calculator. And you can’t set an anchor alarm on a paper chart to alert me at Oh-Dark-Thirty that I’m dragging.

I’m going to continue to carry paper charts as my primary, with a chartplotter as a back-up, just as I always have
a manual bilge pump (and a bucket) even with ample
electric pumps.  

Paper charts are my security blanket, and SWMBO isn’t getting any more wrapping paper. They hold too many of
my secrets.