Few things polarize recreational boaters more than the topic of electronic versus paper charts.

It’s safe to say that electronic and paper charts should both be viewed as position-fixing tools. Most of us employ some version of electronic chart systems these days, ranging from inexpensive handhelds to standalone GPS chartplotters or costly arrangements integrated with AIS, radar and more. Commercial ships almost universally now use the Electronic Chart Display and Information System, which is computer-based satellite navigation integrated with position information, an array of other
navigational sensors, and Automatic Radar Plotting Aid. Its users have to be trained and certified.

Recreational boaters don’t have electronic charts that complex, but the technology we do have access to can make folks realize that it’s wonderful to have the world at one’s fingertips. Electronic charts are fast, easy and accurate. They work great as long as power and an antenna signal are available, the users are competent, the settings are correct, and the data is up to date. In addition to information about positioning, buoyage and hazards, electronic charts can provide a dizzying array of look-ahead information, aerial views, shallow-water alarms, tide and current streams, fishing information and shoreside facility details.

Remember, though: All this information is only as accurate as its source data. An electronic chart chip or program is not good forever. Check your cartography dates and update periodically with information from your manufacturer.

Besides the danger of outdated information, another downside of electronic charts is that it can be too easy to develop an unquestioning worship of the technology, staring into a screen while the eccentricities of the real world whirl all around you. Sometimes, we forget to look out.

Another downside for recreational boaters is the cost of electronic chartplotters. And last but not least, the convenience of electronic GPS chartplotting takes for granted that the GPS signal could be jammed or shut down. Without an
electronic navigation alternative, everyone still needs to know how to dead-reckon.

Paper charts have their own pros and cons. Traditional navigators just plain love the art and science of navigating. Many people find the mathematics and the method of deriving the answer as much of a recreational pursuit as boating itself. And some navigators just seem to feel more in control with a paper chart, perceiving their placement better with the “big picture” instead of a smaller screen. To each his own.

The knowledge and proficiency of navigating with paper charts is satisfying, but that is where the downsides come in. It is much more time-consuming to use paper charts. There is no “hovering” over an object for an explanation, so users must be educated in chart symbols and esoteric ciphers. Instead of checking electronic settings and integration selections, users must check the paper chart datum. Chart soundings are depicted in feet, fathoms or meters, varying without reason from chart to chart. How many groundings have occurred because of this switch-up?

Even if users are stuck with the inconvenience of being down below at a chart table doing math, one thing is certain about paper charts: They will always work when the power is lost or GPS is shut down. This reality is why paper charts are still the backup choice for prudent navigators—commercial helmsmen included. Other redundancy backups are allowed (mainly other GPS instruments or systems with independent power supplies and antenna inputs). Many recreational vessels have more than one GPS chartplotter, and some of us also carry any number of laptops, smartphones and tablets with electronic navigation programs installed.

If you think you have sufficient backup for a total chartplotter failure, then you are prepared. That backup might be a handheld GPS; your laptop, iPad or smartphone; and full GPS reception capability. In the event of a GPS system failure, can you dead-reckon on your plotter or backup electronics? How will you know your last known position if the plotter suddenly quits? What if you get struck by lightning?

You might be wondering about the odds of your boat getting struck by lightning? This query always amuses me because I’ve been struck by lightning three times. Once was in a house where I watched the electrical thread jump across the living room from a telephone to a TV set. Once was in a cottage where the lightning charge followed an outdoor cable through the lighting circuit and shot a fireball out of an outlet, igniting a bulletin board. And once was on a ship during a terrific rain squall as the VHF radios squealed and the hair stood up on our bodies while we scrambled to shut everything down.

Guess who still carries paper charts on board?

Any cruisers’ forum will have pages of back-and-forth arguments against paper charts. They take up too much room, they are expensive, they are not easy to keep updated, you have to use them down below, and more. I believe the case for paper charts is simple and pragmatic. Trust but verify describes the prudent use of paper backup charts in an electronic emergency. They are another means of navigating. Would any of us argue against having spare mechanical parts that we are not likely to use and take up stowage? Of course not.

I keep my paper charts stowed flat under a bunk cushion, consuming little stowage. Trust me: The person sleeping on that bunk has no idea they are there. Granted, the paper charts are not as detailed or numerous as my electronic charts, but they will get me back in.

New folio charts are at least $27 apiece. But for emergency backup, one doesn’t need every large-scale (most detailed) chart for the voyage. A few small-scale charts will cover your transit area and are worth it as spares. Print-on-demand technology makes paper charts as up-to-date as possible, ready for immediate shipping. At nauticalcharts.noaa.gov, you can use the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration nautical chart catalog or the NOAA chart locator. The site has free, print-on-demand charts in PDF format. Another online vendor is nauticalchartsonline.com. I personally use Maptech ChartKit books because they are easy to read, lay flat, and are bound nicely for stowage. They are a great value at around $100 for a wide geographical coverage.

I admit that I’m one of those old-school sailors who actually enjoys navigation. I admire the craftsmanship of the presentation itself. I love the tricks and mathematics honed from a life at sea. Truth be told, I love exercising the organic computer between my ears.

That, for me, is recreational sailing. I’m no romantic, though. I also have navigation programs on my iPhone and iPad for quick work, and a nifty GPS chartplotter. I’m thrilled that voyage planning that used to take hours can now be done digitally in a few minutes. I admit, too, that I sleep better underway now. I can be in my bunk and, with a simple lift of my head, be reassured that the boat is traveling reliably along the intended track.

I do still leave out an open chart book, encouraging my young shipmates to compare both means of position fixing, and to dream about the big picture that lies ahead. And yes, I still have my watch-standers write our latitude and longitude down once each watch. Just in case. 

This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue.

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