Memories of nautical chart table
This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)
You used to use me to track the route
On all boats beyond a certain size (even quite reduced actually) is proudly displayed a furniture element that, until not so long ago, was a real cult piece. It was a sort of secular temple that beginners looked at with a certain deference and that experienced boaters considered as a sacred and inviolable, going on a rampage if only someone dared placing on it any kind of inanimate object not related to navigation.
I am talking about the nautical chart table, item that brings back a scene that was more or less like this: the navigator who crouches over it, managing with mastery brackets, ruler and compass; with pencils rolling with waves, soaked in the blood red glare of the night vision lamp. «Where are we? », called the helmsman from the door. «Twenty miles northwest of the Giraglia», answered the navigator with confident voice; and who was at the helm put full trust in those expert indications, continuing navigating in the night, towards a landing that everyone hoped was at least in the right continent (after Christopher Columbus the doubt is legitimate).
So far – in broad terms – the history. Nowadays is a bit different. The helmsman navigates looking at the chart plotter’s screen on the pedestal tube; the navigator has a duplicated screen and can occasionally leave a mark on a nautical chart, to show a bit of initiative, and just in case the boat ends up stuck around the anchor of a supertanker, without anyone noting until a Rotterdam longshoreman points it out. In that case, the heirs and the successors in title may want to satisfy a justified curiosity on the exact place where the relative passed away.
Marking the ship point, however, is a work that can be done also on the dinette table just as easily as on the nautical chart table.
Let’s admit it: on a 30 feet boat built in the 80’s of the past century, the nautical chart table occupies a significant portion of precious space. In an environment in which onions are stored in nets and cans of beans in every in every hole of the bilges is, therefore, important to find a way to use this big and potentially useful surface with good results.
Normally, a nautical chart table is sized to be used by one person and it is not easily convertible in a convivial dining space; hence, this idea, unfortunately, must be discarded without wasting time in further consideration.
A particularly creative mind may theoretically think that it could be transformed in a pool table, but thanks to the intrinsic instability of the sea surface, playing pool at sea has always been a problem, except – maybe – on board of some giant French charter catamarans.
Surely, at this point one could do without, and with a little work remove everything and install, for example, a wine cellar instead. This would definitely cause the boat attenders a first enthusiastic reaction, but – in the long run – this could suggest a lack of nautical credibility and might drive people to think that we don’t know where we’re sailing.
Reusing is probably the right answer. Let’s try analysing some proposal:
Breakfast table. Nobody likes talking too much with someone else during breakfast, there is nothing better, indeed, than enjoying a coffee – in my case a cup of Earl Grey tea – and chunking something away from stares and unwanted sounds, especially if these sounds appear as the human voice. A great solution could be consuming our breakfast watching the VHF in a hostile way: this could give our day the right flavour.
Workspace. Unfortunately, we all have been envolved by this COID global disgrace; this brought to birth and exponential growth of two phenomena: domestic offices became fashionable (they call it smart working) and, at the same time, many ship owners – being materially able to do it – moved to their boats to try staying in a healthier and less crowded environment.
If it is true, as is true that 1+1=2, the chart table can easily become the ideal workspace, the one that doesn’t need to be disassembled in a hurry when it’s dinner time. Only one problem to solve: if we like working surrounded by pets and family pictures, we will need to find the way to attach them, excluding chewing gums, suggestions and advices are excepted.
Then, nautical chart table is a really good place to read the newspapers in a windy day. If our habits are still leaning towards the hard copy, there is nothing better than preparing a cup of tea, laying the paper on the chart table and closing the hatchway, being therefore isolated from the external world (and from the wind) we could enjoy a luxury that has few equals in the world.
Occasional extension of the kitchen. There’s nothing better, in a winter night, than preparing a good polenta. In this case, nothing can be as useful as being able to count on an “extended” kitchen and having all the space for the preparation.
Our trusted chart table looks like it has been put there on need.
We put the oil on the chart table, it will hopelessly spill right when we’re throwing down the polenta, we will wince and the polenta will fall too, spilling on the chart table; we will try to remove the oil using petrol and vinegar, but none of the systems will work. We’ll rub it with a liquid degreaser, but the smell will still be disgusting. At this point, desperate, we will unscrew the chart table and throw it into the sea, finally free to eat our meat sauce polenta. After dinner we will calm down and realize that throwing away the chart table was a huge foolishness and we will go back and get it. We will get it back and will screw it at its place, pleased to note that the oil strains have miraculously disappeared. Few hours later, we will have to deal with the sea salt incrustations, but at that point we will still be glad that our chart table is back in its place.
Finally, we have to take into account the international geopolitical situation: it can happen at any time that killer satellites may break down all the GPS of location information providers. The first consequence would be finding ourselves with our plotter screen hopelessly “mutes”. At this point, we will have to take the bold action to open the drawer under the chart table, wipe out five years of pencil sharpener, wine bottles caps and lost socks and get the nautical chart back. With it firm in hand, run on deck and get three points of detection on land (assuming it is visible), go back to the chart table and track the ships’ using brackets, paper and pencil. You will repeat this operation every half an hour. You will judge the distance from our destination and conclude that another night at sea will be necessary. At this point, despair will come to us and we will need to stay awhile with the head in the hands: and here we couldn’t help but noticing that the chart table is the perfect place to place the elbows.
Okay, it is obvious that we joked a bit, moreover raise his hand whomever didn’t find himself with the chart table invaded by phones, with respective chargers, hair clips, newspapers, packs of cigarettes, tissues and chewing gums and other stuff that have nothing to do with sailing.
The truth is that with the massive advent of the electronics on board and satellite GPS, it looks like the chart table has become a useless piece of furniture on a pleasure boat. Basically, completely “extinct” in motor boats, almost to mean that power and speed of a boat, have nothing to do with route and navigation.
Here is where I got the idea of laughing about it, knowing well that charting is becoming little by little a practice that is disappearing from the sailor’s habits, almost wanting to give away to digital and multi-media technology.
Mental laziness, unfortunately, makes us slide into electronic and satellite navigation systems, pretending to not think that, sooner or later, and no mistake my friends, these electronical aids and gadgets will breakdown, letting us at the mercy of tools – brackets and pencil – of which we won’t remember the use.
Meanwhile, let’s stay cheerful and – given the period – let’s stay safe.
Fair wind, see you at sea.
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