Paper or Plastic?

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"You're not carrying any paper charts?" is a question I've heard at all the exotic landfalls and cruiser's hangouts I've visited during my circumnavigation. Many cruisers, it seems, aren't quite ready to fully trust their electronic chartplotters. While almost all cruisers, other than a few diehards, do have plotters on board, they also carry enough paper charts and tools for measuring and plotting on them to fill up a berth.

I don't carry any paper charts on board. I am relatively new to sailing; I got my first boat seven years ago and still consider myself a bit of a novice. But that first boat had a chartplotter and two memory cards, so that's how I learned to navigate. Those cards got me down the Pacific coast as far as Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. That's where the cards stopped, so that's as far south as I went on my first voyage.

On my current circumnavigation aboard my Hunter 49, WanderLust3, I do carry some paper, but no charts. Instead, I have cruising guides for every area I plan to visit. Most of them contain exact waypoints and have good sketch charts of all the anchorages. When I get close to a destination, I get out the guides and study the charts in them so I won't hit anything. I don't believe I need paper while at sea, but I do need my GPS. GPS has never failed me, and I don't expect it to. Today GPS plays a role in all our lives, ashore and afloat; it's become so important that even my mother has a GPS navigator in her car.

What about a lightning strike? I've been in two big storms with bolts striking all around me. In the middle of one of them, lightning struck a sailboat less than a mile away; the boat lost all its electrical functions, and I wound up towing it into port. Since then I've thought hard about what might happen if lightning struck my own boat. Fortunately, the skipper of the boat I towed in gave me a good tip. Even though his gear was fried, he had put his handheld GPS and all his memory cards in the oven, and all were fine. The oven had acted like a Faraday cage and shielded the gear from the lightning strike. I do that now with all my portable gear.

I have three GPS units on board, and when there is any chance of a lightning strike, I put two of them, along with the memory cards I keep in a metal box, in the oven.

I thought about lining the metal box with lead, but decided not to. I thought that was a little over the top.

When I was considering what gear to carry during my voyage, I looked at all available plotting options. I wanted systems that could be integrated with each other, but would also work separately. My primary navigational tool is a Raymarine E-series chartplotter that runs Navionics charts on CF memory cards. The Platinum grade requires 2 gigabytes per area, but those areas are huge. The 22 memory cards I carry cover all the areas I plan to visit. There are 12 Platinum cards of 2 gigs each, plus 10 Gold cards, because Navionics doesn't yet offer them in the Platinum series. I wanted my Geonav handheld GPS plotter to read the same CF memory cards and the unit I chose reads the Navionics cards. If I insert an adapter cable from the handheld unit into my Dell laptop's USB port, I can plot on my laptop.

Having this flexibility is important to me, because if my Raymarine plotter should somehow fail—it has worked perfectly so far—I can use the handheld plotter instead. Even better, I can put it in the oven, along with the laptop, if there's a possibility of a lightning strike. I also carry Nobeltec's Charts of the World on a single DVD, plus I have the Nobeltec Admiral 9 charting system stored in my laptop. I can easily hook it up to my GPS and all the other electronics via a NMEA 0183 connection.

This lets me open an electronic chart on my laptop and compare Nobeltec charts with Navionics charts. So far they've been almost identical, though they do appear differently on the screen. Nobeltec charts look like paper charts, while Navionics charts have a more digital look to them. Both are very exact, and I don't prefer one to the other. Plus, having the Navionics cards for my chartplotters and the Nobeltec system for my laptop provides lots of flexibility. When I'm under way, using the plotter is easier than having to read the laptop down at the nav table. All my systems work well for what I want them to do, which is to guide me safely to my next destination.

I know some skippers and navigators will always carry paper charts. Whatever makes you comfortable is what you should do. But I must add a word of caution: All charts, paper or electronic, can have inaccuracies. The paper charts for some remote areas are based on surveys conducted by Captain Cook. In contrast, the coordinates on some of the newest Platinum charts are derived from the latest satellite imagery and are very exact. However, that doesn't mean you can blindly trust any chart. In my travels I've found discrepancies as great as several hundred yards. That's a good reason for using every piloting tool you have at hand and never taking for granted the picture you see on your chartplotter. Double- and triple-checking your position using a variety of tools increases the likelihood that you'll stay out of trouble.

At the end of November 2007, solo circumnavigator Mike Harker arrived in Durban, South Africa. He left Cape Town in early December on the last leg—up the South Atlantic and across the equator to the Caribbean and then on to Florida.

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