Why You Still Need Paper Charts

In a day where any smartphone can be a competent chart plotter, why do sailers still need to have, and be competent at navigating with, paper charts?

Admittedly, there are plenty of times where charts of any kind just aren’t needed. For example, a lobsterman who has been fishing the same bay for thirty years can probably find their way home in a pea-soup fog without much help. I can just about navigate the lake we grew up on with my eyes closed. So not every situation requires charts.

Can you identify two large islands in this photo? No? We are still quite close to shore here.

It’s when you get a little farther from your comfort zone that we start to rely on charts and chart plotters. When you’re a few miles off the coast, it can be tough to tell one island from another in good weather on Caso Bay for example. With easy access to chart plotters that automatically show you your location and heading (as well as a plethora of other real-time data), it’s easy to get lax about learning and using paper charts completely. But what happens if something goes wrong? You lose power or drop your phone overboard for example? You still need to be able to find your way into port, the correct one, and not run aground.

There are more than three islands to the port of this lighthouse, can you distinguish them?

Just having a twenty-year-old chartbook in the cabin is not sufficient. If you cant locate your current position and heading on a chart, there is not much point in having it. You need to be able to quickly, perhaps under duress, asses your current location and heading on a paper chart then plan and follow a course to a safe destination. These are critical safety skills and some or all of your crew needs to know it too in case you become incapacitated.

Your charts should be updated somewhat regularly. Granted, they don’t really change too much or often enough. There are buoys on charts near us that have not existed for decades. But enough change happens that a twenty-year-old chart probably won’t be accurate enough in some cases and some new navigational aids may now exist that finding your current location might be quicker and easier with a new chart and time can mean everything in an emergency.

Why you still need paper charts
A physical chart and the skills to use it are critical safety equipment

I’d make another recommendation as well. I keep calling them paper charts to distinguish the old-fashioned map from the digital counterparts common today. I suggest you get water-resistant, if not waterproof charts. A cheap print-out from your computer will turn to a pulp in a rainy cockpit and you will be without guidance. A water-resistant, laminated, or plastic chart is ideal. You won’t have to worry as much about it falling apart in bad seas or weather.

There are courses available for nautical chart reading and navigation from the likes of ASA et cetera that should give you the tools you need. We’ll make some content soon showing the basics of chart navigation to get you started, but I always recommend professional guidance for these sorts of things.

I hope at this point we may have answered the question; why you still need paper charts. Thanks for reading our blog and if you like our content please follow us on YouTube and other social media outlets. See you on the seas!

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