The Case for Paper Charts (Part 3 of 3)

By Bob Sweet
Author: The Weekend Navigator, GPS for Mariners and former U.S. Power Squadrons National Educational Officer

In Part 1 of this series, we talked about NOAA’s announcement that they will no longer be printing “litho” charts, but that paper charts will still be available on demand. In Part 2 of this series, I explained why you still need paper charts, in addition to digital charts. Now, let’s take a closer look at how to make the most efficient use of both chart types.

The tough part with digital charts is getting them updated. It’s downright expensive, since in most cases you need to buy a new chart chip. I recently purchased the latest in chartplotters to use in my seminars. It came with the entire U.S. chart set. Just one problem – it’s really hard to find out when the charts were made. And if I want new charts, you guessed it: I need to buy a new chip.

One fine guru had the opinion that paper charts are dangerous since they are so difficult to update. Ever hear of a pencil? You can go to a Coast Guard site, enter your chart number, and get a list of all the changes on your chart. What I recommend to those attending my seminars is to update the charts for your local waters. If you set out on a cruise, chances are you’re going to venture on new waters. So, order the charts as you need them along the way. Then they will be up to date. If you’re doing the Great Loop, order the charts in groups and have them sent to marinas along the way.

Some people complain about the size of the NOAA charts. The solution is simple: fold them. Then, you just unfold the section you need in order to see where you are and where you’re going. Other printed charts may offer an alternative. When using other charts, however, be sure to check the date, as some may have been on the dealers’ shelves for a while.

In my books and seminars, I explain three phases of navigation: planning, navigating, and checking. Here’s a brief overview of which charts work best for each phase:

  • Planning is when you decide where you are going and pre-qualify the paths. This is when you need the most up-to-date charts.
  • Navigating is simply following those pre-qualified paths. Vector charts are best for that.
  • Checking is when you make sure you are where you are supposed to be. For this, you need feature-rich charts to identify landmarks, and usually a wider view that is afforded by paper charts.

My final message is to use all of the navigation tools available to you. Redundancy is security. Paper charts and your compass are your backup when all else fails. Oh, and don’t forget to have an extra GPS on board, too.


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