Navigating Charlotte Harbor and its surrounding waterways is a bit more complex than driving a car on our local roadways (in the off season, that is). Although technology has come a long way with GPS, sonar and other widgets, the need for a backup while on the water is (in my opinion) imperative.
Why? Well, what happens when the GPS stops working due to a blown fuse, water damage or a software failure? We revert to old school and pull out a chart, that’s what we do.
First, let me give you an update on the production of paper charts. Recent maritime news reported that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would begin phasing out the printing of paper charts, and that the phase-out will be completed by January 2025. NOAA’s decision to stop producing paper charts came in 2016 after the U.S. Coast Guard approved commercial ships on domestic voyages to use electronic charts in lieu of paper charts.
But this doesn’t mean there will be no more paper charts. Private companies throughout the United States are already filling the void and will continue to produce paper charts for mariners to use.
Keep in mind, commercial captains require specialized training to navigate a ship using electronic charts only. Even charter boat captains are required to plot positions and read charts to obtain their captain’s license.
In comparison, Florida’s training requirement for recreational boaters is abysmal. Only boaters born on or after Jan. 1, 1988, and operating a vessel powered by 10 horsepower or more are required to complete an online course.
This absurdly minute requirement does not include any electronic GPS training or chart plotting and, in my opinion, does not sufficiently prepare any boater to safely operate a vessel. I strongly recommend all recreational boater become familiar with GPS chart plotters. But it’s also a really good plan to obtain a local updated chart of the areas you intend to operate your vessel, and to be familiar with how to use it in the event of an emergency.
The history of charts dates back much further than most boaters us realize. The first charts were actually called sailing directions. They were handed down primarily by word of mouth and often included a few hand-sketched illustrations of what the mariner encountered on their voyage.
The earliest recognizable charts, first mentioned in the 13th century, were referred to as portolan maps. The word portolan comes from the Italian word portulano, meaning “related to ports or harbors.” These early maps mainly covered the Mediterranean Sea and southern Europe.
Today’s charts have been greatly simplified and are a reliable means of navigating from one location to another. They are available full size, reduced size, waterproof or in chart books that cover specific regions.
At first glance, they may seem confusing and difficult to read, especially because of how they differ from an ordinary road map. But once you understand all of their features, a chart will become one of your most trusted aides on your boat.
Even with 39 years of boating experience, I still find myself studying a chart if I am navigating to an area with which I’m unfamiliar or that is known to have difficult or narrow channels.
I find it extremely useful to first visualize the area I will navigate to by studying the local area chart. Then, while navigating to the area, I use onboard equipment such as GPS and depth sounders as a backup to what I studied from the chart and what I see as I transit to my destination.
I feel strongly that every recreational boater at a minimum should understand the basics of chart reading. How strongly do I feel about this topic? So much so that I teach it in my Nautical Knowledge 101 boating education class.
When students arrive for class, many are flabbergasted to see a chart on their desk. Several more begin to get nervous when they review the course curriculum and see it contains lectures on chart familiarization, which includes teaching students how to plot a magnetic course from one location to another.
During class we conduct our chart familiarization using an updated local Charlotte Harbor Chart, chart #11426. My chart lecture includes a myriad of sub-topics such as buoy systems, shoal water identification, spoil areas, latitude, longitude fundamentals and chart symbols to name a few.
So, to chart or not to chart? If you ask me, it’s a no-brainer. Purchase an updated local chart and get brilliant on the basics.