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Paper and plastic

Jul 8, 2015
NOAA's online chart viewer.

NOAA's online chart viewer.

I frequently see long and acrid online forum argument threads about the superiority of digital charting vs. paper charts. However, like with most things there is no single correct answer for every situation. Can you be all-digital and be safe? Yes! Can you go all-paper and be safe? Yes!

But why do you have to go all one way or the other? Just like sailboats equipped with powerful diesel engines, most of us choose to have both. There is nothing finer than a long sail when the wind is right, the sails are trimmed and the boat is gliding silently across the bay. But when it comes time to work my way in or out of a fuel dock or a marina, I prefer to do it under power. Could I instead sail up to the dock? Sure, in an emergency — but why does it have to be one or the other?

I feel the same way about nautical charting. I like to have the chartplotter running when offshore, silently keeping a continuous note of our position, speed, progress and relation to hazards. But at the same time, I like to have a folded paper chart nearby showing me the big picture at a glance so I can think more broadly about the route, where we are headed, possibly how to deal with an upcoming wind shift, etc.

Scale matters
This one small example indicates one of the major downfalls of most digital charting systems: Due to the available screen size, you can either look at a small area in good detail or a large area with insufficient detail. You simply need more real estate than most chartplotters provide in order to get the big picture with decent detail. Are bigger screens and monitors available? Yes, they are, but I have yet to see a pleasure boat equipped with one 3-by-4 feet, which is near the size of a typical chart.

There is nothing quite like spreading out the big paper chart to plan your offshore route to Bermuda and beyond. Without scrolling or zooming you can see everything from the East Coast out to the islands, including the route of the Gulf Stream, which is critical to your planning. I keep some older charts around the house so I can draw up planned passages or even just summer cruises. A little bit of planning can make a cruise so much more enjoyable.

On the other hand, using digital charts on my home PC is a fantastic asset for making those same plans. I can look up any harbor I want to in the USA for free using NOAA's online chart viewer , or I can use one of several charting programs that can utilize the free chart downloads from NOAA (http://www.charts.noaa.gov/). OpenCPN is one of the free navigation programs, and there are versions for most operating systems (http://opencpn.org/ocpn/).

I find the PC charting program invaluable for picking out waypoints, which I like to do prior to being underway, and together with my big paper chart they make for a great planning tool.

Get the big picture of a small harbor
Another area where I like to have a paper chart handy is when approaching a tricky harbor. Yes, the chartplotter can be great in providing detailed views of every place you might visit, but again that view will be centered around where your boat is located. While winding your way up a narrow channel with side channel offshoots, rocks to dodge and possibly funky buoyage, it is great to once again be able to hold a paper chart that provides a bigger picture of everything coming up. Not only can you see the red nun coming up, but you can spot that water tower shown on the chart that creates a perfect range for homing in on the town wharf hidden behind all the boats.

The same applies in the Intracoastal Waterway. Use the digital charting to keep track of where you are and use the paper charts or a chartbook to plan ahead for the next anchorage or fuel stop. It is far easier to flip back and forth through a paper chartbook than it is to scroll up and down the electronic screen.

The more tools the better
When I am repairing something on board it often saves time and money in the long run to go out and purchase the right tool for the job. The same applies with paper charts and digital charts. Have both available and use the best tool for the job at hand.

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Jul 8, 2015 02:01 pm
 Posted by  John Lewis

When we left on our circumnavigation we had paper charts for the areas we would pass through until we got from Mexico to Australia.

It was a lot of charts. We folded them lengthwise and packaged them up in long vacuum sealed bags that were easy to store against the sides of the hull.

We never looked at any of them.

We found the laptop software let us have a couple of charts, of different scales, open at the same time.

The labtop navigation sofware was all we ever needed and the paper charts seemed like an additional source of clutter on a boat at sea. We used an external monitor, keyboard and mouse so the computer was safely tucked away. We considered the paper charts as backup in the event our electronics failed.

When it came time to spend a lot of money for the paper charts we would need to complete our circumnavigation we balked. Odds were that we would never need the paper charts.

So we printed charts, from our electronic navigation software, of all the possible harbors along our route that we might have to enter in a pinch and stowed those away. They took up a lot less space and the price was right.

We never looked at those either but they were there if we needed them.

We also saved digital screen shots of google earth images of most of the harbors we planned to visit. Sometimes they were more informative than the charts (paper or electronic).

Jul 8, 2015 05:06 pm
 Posted by  TOMJ

I've always maintained that, if Christopher Columbus or Ferdinand Magellan had access to a chartplotter, GPS, depthsounder, or other electronic navigation aids, they would have used them, as they would have used the 'latest and greatest' technology available at the time!

HOWEVER, they always had a 'BACKUP' system (hardcopy charts, lead-line, local knowledge, logs of previous voyages, their 'inate' sea-sense, etc.

My wife and I have made quite a few trips up/down the ICW, along with some 'offshore' work also in our trips via sailboat to/from the Bahamas. We always carry (and use) printed ICW guides (Skipper Bob, etc.), printed charts, along with on-line/digital cruising guides, electronic charting software, etc.

It's unfortunate that to some boaters, their 'world' is the magenta line on the chartplotter. In fact, on some boats it's nearly impossible to see ahead due to the physical size of the chartplotter.

We've seen quite a few boats aground on the ICW in areas where a good set of 'eyeballs' (also perhaps with a good set of binoculars) should be the primary 'navaid'.

Our 'advice' is to use 'multiple sources' of 'crosschecking' cruising/navigation information , and thus not be limited to only one source which may (at times) provide inaccurate or erroneous information.

Jul 9, 2015 09:05 pm
 Posted by  StrayCatOR

In the Navy mumblemany years ago I served as a Quartermaster (that's navigation in the Navy and Coast Guard, not storekeeper as in the Army etc.) on a couple of 4000 ton destroyers throughout the North Pacific. We were proficient in celestial, loran, long and short range radar and in close quarters visual bearing fixes every minute or two, and all on paper charts or plotting sheets.

I now teach navigation for Coast Guard Qualification as boat crew and coxswain.

For my own cruising (34' power catamaran) I use both methods. Between a smartphone, a tablet, a handheld GPS, my laptop, the big installed radar/chartplotter (with MARPA and Overlay), one handheld and one 25 watt VHF with AIS, one EPIRB and two PEPIRBs I have nine independent GPS receivers running on nine independent battery/genset/inverter power systems I'm not interested in discussing failures of these redundant systems, and yes, I wear both a belt and suspenders. I love the sea but I realize it doesn't love me back.

Before a passage I download fresh electronic charts with corrections up to a couple weeks old to the laptop. I lay out the track at large scale, then carefully test for hazards all along it at very small scale and designate it as a Route. I print out small scale charts of hazardous sites and harbors of refuge.

I keep large scale paper charts on the dinette, taped to Masonite panels, with the track penciled in with courses and distances (from the laptop route).

As a cruising couple only one of us at a time is available to stand the Rule 5 lookout/helm watch, where we never use automatic waypoint control, rather engage the autohelm and steer with the plus and minus buttons to stay on track.

Every half hour or so we plot the Lat/Long from the electronics onto the paper chart, which answers at a glance 'Where are we?/Are we almost there?'

Jul 14, 2015 09:10 am
 Posted by  TOMJ

To John Kettlewell:
Forgot to mention (had a 'senior moment') that we always use your 'IntraCoaastal Waterway Chartbook' on our traverses of the ICW to/from the Chesapeake to West Palm. We 'Don't leave home without it!!'. In fact we carry several older editions with us, as we find it quite useful to keep (sort of) a log of our progress, anchorages, etc., along the margins of each page. Quite a useful reference!

Since we carry on board our own WIFI hotspot, we are not dependent on Marinas, etc. for internet access going down the ICW. We've recorded most of our anchorages and stops along the ICW on 'Google Earth' (along with doing a 'print screen' of the nav program - Polar View) for future reference. Also, it makes for a handy 'show and tell' for 'wanna-be' cruisers.

Tom in Kinsale, VA

Jul 14, 2015 09:11 am
 Posted by  TOMJ

To John Kettlewell:
Forgot to mention (had a 'senior moment') that we always use your 'IntraCoaastal Waterway Chartbook' on our traverses of the ICW to/from the Chesapeake to West Palm. We 'Don't leave home without it!!'. In fact we carry several older editions with us, as we find it quite useful to keep (sort of) a log of our progress, anchorages, etc., along the margins of each page. Quite a useful reference!

Since we carry on board our own WIFI hotspot, we are not dependent on Marinas, etc. for internet access going down the ICW. We've recorded most of our anchorages and stops along the ICW on 'Google Earth' (along with doing a 'print screen' of the nav program - Polar View) for future reference. Also, it makes for a handy 'show and tell' for 'wanna-be' cruisers.

Tom in Kinsale, VA

Jul 14, 2015 09:11 am
 Posted by  TOMJ

To John Kettlewell:
Forgot to mention (had a 'senior moment') that we always use your 'IntraCoaastal Waterway Chartbook' on our traverses of the ICW to/from the Chesapeake to West Palm. We 'Don't leave home without it!!'. In fact we carry several older editions with us, as we find it quite useful to keep (sort of) a log of our progress, anchorages, etc., along the margins of each page. Quite a useful reference!

Since we carry on board our own WIFI hotspot, we are not dependent on Marinas, etc. for internet access going down the ICW. We've recorded most of our anchorages and stops along the ICW on 'Google Earth' (along with doing a 'print screen' of the nav program - Polar View) for future reference. Also, it makes for a handy 'show and tell' for 'wanna-be' cruisers.

Tom in Kinsale, VA

Jul 14, 2015 09:11 am
 Posted by  TOMJ

To John Kettlewell:
Forgot to mention (had a 'senior moment') that we always use your 'IntraCoaastal Waterway Chartbook' on our traverses of the ICW to/from the Chesapeake to West Palm. We 'Don't leave home without it!!'. In fact we carry several older editions with us, as we find it quite useful to keep (sort of) a log of our progress, anchorages, etc., along the margins of each page. Quite a useful reference!

Since we carry on board our own WIFI hotspot, we are not dependent on Marinas, etc. for internet access going down the ICW. We've recorded most of our anchorages and stops along the ICW on 'Google Earth' (along with doing a 'print screen' of the nav program - Polar View) for future reference. Also, it makes for a handy 'show and tell' for 'wanna-be' cruisers.

Tom in Kinsale, VA

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