This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)

If we do an excursus on the most recent sailing yacht layouts, we can notice that, gradually, the dimensions, the chart table’s importance and functionality have changed significantly. Particularly, we can notice how the table’s dimensions drastically reduced and its functionality has changed clearly in favour of the electronic navigation support.

In simple terms, if we are the lucky ship owner of a modern boat, we will have to pay the price of having a smaller chart table, a bit sacrificed and unsuitable to welcome our beautiful nautical charts.

All right, closed chapter, do we completely convert to “electronic navigation”?

As for me, I immediately give up suspense (you spell it just like that, you can go check) and I declare my opinion: No, electronic support cannot replace definitely and completely the nautical charts…But…no ideological position and let’s reason this out.

First of all, we must say that to the present day Italian legislation still requires the presence on board of all nautical charts that show the area in which one is sailing (charts and portolans) and then we have to consider that, as we all have learned: “everything that is on board can fail”.  Having said that, it is right to look around and try to figure out where the trend will go and form an informed and aware opinion.

Nowadays we have navigation apps that help with planning the navigation. Apps that explain the racing rules, apps that trace us and apps that trace all other navigating units with AIS. Apps for weather forecast are always improving accuracy and reliability and we can combine different weather patterns on a handheld device. They can support us with satellite images; show us radar data on rain and – we are racing – give us information on the wind and lead us to the upwind mark.

Electronic navigational charts (ENC) have been available in different ways for 25 years, is it time to give up paper supports, then? Our navigation system has apps for creating graphs able to transfer the equivalent of hundreds of charts to a portable device at a fraction of the cost, of the dimensions and the weight of traditional charts. You can update electronic charts in a few clicks, while manual updating requires replacing the charts themselves on board, or tens of hours of work upstream.

Of course, traditionalists will underline that there have been some resounding incidents in which using electronic charts has contributed causing groundings. However, it has to be said that, often – net of some app’s bug – we find out that the navigator, trivially, did not enlarge enough to see a danger, an obstacle, a rock, a shoal.

Many of you reading and I writing don’t belong to the digital native generation, and for us it is easier to identify dangers and move rapidly the eyes on the charts. This, however, as long as having charts in larger scale at hand. It is not always an easy and comfortable thing on small boats and for navigation that is a little more extensive. However, if we had a total electrical failure, how would we face it counting only on ENCs?

No need for drama: First, because normally electrical component on modern boats are more reliable and because usually at least half of the crew will have separate electronic map app on their tablets and smartphones.

In addition to that, devices have become waterproof. Having additional systems, each with its power source, looks like a good starting point to counter electrical failures.

However, a safe navigation suggests taking with you your area’s navigation charts anyways. Remember that in Italy (as in France and Spain after all) having navigation charts is mandatory. In the UK, the Royal Ocean Racing Club recommends using charts to cover the entire area of a race. While in the Rolex Sydney to Hobert Race competitors must have on board 25 detailed charts, and that organisers count them during the pre-race security inspection.

Nevertheless, in practice, few modern navigators in offshore regattas use nautical charts; the possibility to use the racing navigation software, with its files and higher and higher definition, interfaced with polar diagrams and route algorithm, represents usually a solution too powerful and too versatile for those who sail to ignore. Moreover, during a competition, the software can help tracking the other competitors and, just as easily, tracking ships or individuals in need of assistance. It could record digitally position, route and speed as well as many other parameters every second.

On the other hand, nautical charts are vital in order to instruct the crew before the race; and even in a fleet racing, it is a great help to visualize the route, the position of the buoys and the orography surrounding us.  

However, the charts and the cockpit do not always get along; I remember using a nautical chart in the dark after the mainsail sheet hoist cut the plotter’s screen power cable. I remember that my “waterproof” nautical chart dissolved into papier-Mache in a few minutes, and I ended up finding myself removing it from the wet floor of the cockpit, reduced into strips.

An advantage of nautical charts over ENC is the speed with which you can examine and how it is up to date. Remember that halfway between curiosity and folklore, there are still areas of current Pacific charts dating back to 1770, which a certain Captain James cook discovered!

Updating is still the main obstacle to the use of paper charts. The “majeure” merchant navy has always used paper maps, which are updated via the known “Notices to Skippers”. The definitive adoption of the electronic charts on the command deck is in course and the old-fashioned maps – if not used as a back-up system – will be soon museum material (together with their precious matrices).

Imagine for a moment a boat used in “round trip” itineraries, around the globe: the amount of charts you must prepare is shocking, at least five hundred between “general” and “particular”. However, the commitment is not so much to put them together and trace the route, but updating and correcting them. Notices to Skippers arrive in all ports by mail, contained in a CD-ROM or via email.

Let’s think for a second about the to the workload of the officer to navigation in physically updating the changes in the characteristics of a lighthouse or a depth on a range of 500 charts, maybe jumping – for example – from Mexico, to Vietnam, to Egypt. It is an effort that we obviously cannot neglect and it is quite unimaginable doing it on a pleasure boat.

In conclusion, although using nautical charts for navigation has become a memory of the past, I personally like the idea of having them at hand. There is something nostalgic and sentimental in examining a paper chart; it is a slow, ancient, almost therapeutic gesture.

In addition to that, how beautiful is it to examine a chart (maybe with our boat mates) to find the best-sheltered anchorage for the night? Beautiful yes, and as for me I do it even if, I confess, I use Google satellite images to understand the extent of the sand at the bottom of the sea for a better seal and even the brightness of the sand on the beach.

Anyways, let’s take tablet, charts and pilot books… in a while it will be time to plan the summer cruise.

Fair wind, see you at sea.

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