From the Editor: Paper Yields to Pixels

The news that NOAA was going to stop offering printed nautical charts was hardly a surprise, but all the same it hurts to see the end of an era. All we boomer types who spent our formative cruising years frowning over dog-eared paper charts, stamped with coffee cup rings, crisscrossed by part-erased pencil lines and dotted with semi-legible scribblings, will feel a warm fuzzy pang of sentimentality at the news.
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Many sailors still prefer paper charts. Photo by Mahina Expeditions

Many sailors still prefer paper charts. Photo by Mahina Expeditions

The news that NOAA was going to stop offering printed nautical charts was hardly a surprise, but all the same it hurts to see the end of an era. All we boomer types who spent our formative cruising years frowning over dog-eared paper charts, stamped with coffee cup rings, crisscrossed by part-erased pencil lines and dotted with semi-legible scribblings, will feel a warm fuzzy pang of sentimentality at the news. Because—let’s be honest now—when was the last time any of you sailed a passage with a paper chart spread out on the nav table, as your one and only guide?

I consider myself one of the guardians of the True Faith—i.e., old-fashioned pilotage—but even I have become a lazy sod over the last few years. I have any number of paper charts on board and (in my defense) I often plan passages with a look at my old Maptech chartbook of the New England coast, but generally speaking, it’s the electronic charts in my plotter and in my iPad that are my first line of reference when I’m sailing close to shore.

I’ve seldom bothered to update my paper charts via Notices to Mariners, figuring that coastlines don’t change short of volcanic activity, in which case I’d be sailing in the opposite direction as quickly as possible anyway. Of course, it’s much easier to get your electronics charts updated, though to be honest I’ve yet to get around to that either.

I once guided a cruising boat into Bermuda at night after its electronics had gone on the fritz with a 20-year paper chart and a depth sounder. Similarly, I took a boat all the way into Key West after dark using a paper chart that had never even been opened before, after our plotter expired in a kaleidoscope of jumbled pixels 60 miles out. So, yes, I know it’s good to have some paper charts on board, although I’d just as soon have a spare plotter. When my elderly Navman chart plotter turned up its digital toes one afternoon, the first thing I reached for was not my paper charts, but my iPad/Bluetooth GPS head combo with its full charts/navigation suite.

Does anyone recall the headshaking among the hardcore bluewater cruising fraternity when GPS first became an affordable extra? All those who vowed that the little box of tricks would be acquired merely as a backup, switched on only when it wasn’t possible to take a sun or star sight? Yeah, right. There’s nothing so seductive as convenience coupled with accuracy, at least when it comes to navigational devices.

So farewell, NOAA charts; well, not quite, because the agency still offers print-on-demand charts, and I’ll be availing myself of those when the time comes. You see, I am not ready to totally dispense with paper charts just yet.

Peter_Nielsen2011-thb95x120

Peter Nielsen isn’t ready to go fully digital

Read Lauren Saalmuller's NOAA to Stop Printing Paper Charts. Here

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