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Caring for Navigation Charts

Charts are the key to navigation. They provide the tools for all boaters to know where they are, where they are going and what theyll find when the boat arrives at its destination. Without charts, wed all literally be lost.

The days when governments sold charts at less than the actual cost of printing as a public service are over. Today, any boater who wants to travel any distance on the waterways will find that charts represent a significant investment. Its a wise and prudent mariner who cares for this investment so that it lasts as long as possible.

Here are some thoughts on caring for charts properly so they last at least as long as the edition date.


If selecting charts(see below) for a large area, consider a privately printed chart book or kit. Not only will you save money and receive additional features over individual government charts, but the binding helps protect the charts.
Many privately printed flat and folded charts are on heavy paper or even waterproof plastic. These materials are tougher and generally last longer than government charts.


Plot on a soft surface. Hard, irregular surfaces such as nonskid decking, promote tears in the chart paper. For small boats, a portable plotting board can be very useful. A piece of drafting board cover on the nav table or a portable board makes an ideal plotting surface.

Plot belowdecks at the nav station or dining table. Rain, salt spray or whipping wind out in the open air will destroy a chart in a few moments. If a paper chart must go out on deck, place it in a waterproof envelope with enough weight to keep it from blowing overboard.

Use a fine mechanical pencil with a hard lead. Soft pencils leave wide marks that smear easily, making the chart hard to read, as do many ink or felt-tipped pens. Never use an eraser on a chart as it abrades the paper, making it unreadable later.

Dont plot too much or make notes on the chart, since numerous marks on the chart eventually destroy its readability. Plot basic courses and use graph paper or the ships log to make other entries or calculations. An acetate sheet over the chart allows the navigator to plot with a grease pencil, erasing it all later without ever making a mark on the actual chart.

Use dividers with fine, stepped tips, traditional brass dividers can leave big holes in the paper.


Stowing charts completely flat is always the best practice, but that's sometimes difficult on all but the largest yachts. Chart kits and small quantities of flat charts can be stowed under a mattress or settee cushions.

If stowing them flat isnt possible, charts should be rolled. By rolling them carefully with square ends and placing them in a chart tube or piece of PVC pipe, charts will last a long time. Even very small boats usually have room for a few chart tubes mounted overhead or under a shelf.

Learn how to take charts out of a tube without tearing them by grasping the inside corners and rolling them more tightly before pulling. Soft chart weights on the nav table help conquer a curling chart fresh from the roll.

Folding charts is the least preferable option, as the creases damage the paper, make plotting more difficult and make the area around the fold hard to read. On small boats, however, folding may be unavoidable. In this case, use as few folds as possible and make sure the chart number and title block are visible so you can find the chart again.

Put groups of folded charts in waterproof plastic bags or boxes and store them so that they cant slide around, damaging themselves. If a little water gets into their storage area, they'll stay dry instead of turning into a mass of expensive pulp.

Nautical Charts

To download Nautical Charts include Paper Nautical Charts visit NOAA.

To Choosing

Charts are the number one safety item on any boat. These paper replicas of the sea and landscape provide all the information necessary to find your position, locate a harbor of refuge, and keep your boat off reefs and rocks in between. Even if you have electronic cartography is aboard, paper charts are an essential backup in case of power or instrument failure.

It's amazing how many boaters spend many thousands of dollars on their boats, equipping it with the latest in EPIRBs, liferafts and electronics, only to save a few hundred dollars on charts. Boaters know that charts aren't cheap, a lengthy cruise of 1,000 miles can require perhaps $500 $1,000 worth of paper or more. But the alternative is to be forever lost in a state of unpreparedness.

Even if you use your boat to cover the waters within a few miles of your home or marina and have excellent local knowledge, a few well-selected charts will pay for themselves with just a single onboard emergency. Besides, you may discover a small creek or cove to explore, an unknown wreck to dive or a deep pool to fish that is new to you.

Start Small

Small scale charts cover big areas. You should have one chart that covers the entire region in which you plan to use your boat. This planning chart allows you to see a whole cruise or fishing expedition at a glance and helps to make decisions about courses without flipping through multiple charts. If you regularly go 10 miles up or down the coast, buy a coastal chart that covers at least another 10 miles in all directions, if it takes two charts to accomplish this, buy them both. Planning charts covering very large areas, such as the International Series (you can buy online - covering whole oceans or coasts, are available on one piece of paper.

Many boaters like to hang a duplicate of their planning chart on a wall in their home or office. It not only fires the imagination but allows them to become more familiar with their home waters or an area where they may be planning a future cruise. Many navigators find that being intimately familiar with the Big Picture, especially of an unfamiliar area, makes them more confident when they arrive there on the water.


Don't wait until the day before your cruise begins to purchase charts. This is a good way to confuse yourself and end up without the proper charts, especially if you're undertaking a charter in a remote location. Start six months before your cruise begins if at all possible by receiving the current government chart catalog for the area. Develop a good relationship with a reputable chart agent and rely on the agent's expertise.

On the flip side, don't keep charts forever, they get old, torn, filled with salt and go out of date. At least once each year check the editions on charts you own to see if they've been replaced with more current information. If they have, buy the newer edition having bad information may be worse than having no information at all.

Filling In

With the overall chart and a chart catalog in hand, begin filling in the coastal and large scale (harbor) charts in the area you plan to take your boat. If your cruising area has natural boundaries, such as all of Chesapeake Bay, check out the kits or books of charts, these are handy to carry and save a good deal of money over the equal coverage in government charts. If you're purchasing chart books, however, double-check the coverage against your government chart catalog, the naitical books sometimes clip off critical passages or leave off major inlets.

These can often be filled in with just a few additional government charts (

When the trip is a very long one such as Maine to Florida, you may want to identify all the major inlets and harbors, omitting the minor ones from your itinerary to save on the cost. Be prudent when doing this, however, as you'll invariably want to use the omitted harbor for storm refuge, or use the inlet that's left out to take advantage of favorable conditions outside. Try not to leave gaps more than a 12-hour running distance for your boat.

Chart Quality

Not all charts are created equal, even among government charts. Numerous agreements exist among the world's top chart agencies so that there are often many choices of supply. In the Great Lakes, for instance, both the US and Canada print charts of most areas. Canadian charts would be preferred in this instance as their paper is heavier, the color scheme is generally easier to read and the charts are less expensive than their US counterparts.

For the pinnacle of chart production, nothing comes close to "British Admiralty" (BA) charts, and most mariners are unaware that they cover the entire globe, including the US. BA charts are updated by hand to the date of sale and many Admiralty agents will continue to hand-update your charts after you buy them for a nominal fee. Admiralty charts are on very heavy paper, all folded to the same size for easy storage. The downside is the cost, nearly double that of comparable US charts.

Almost all maritime countries have charts of their waters, including all the European countries, Mexico, Argentina, Cuba, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand. These are often more current or a better value than a reprint issued by the US or Britain, but may present some language problems.

If you're cruising in one of these countries, look for a chart agent familiar with their benefits and drawbacks.

Copies of charts are to be the least preferred. While black and white copies of US charts are very inexpensive, the process often distorts the image to a dangerous degree. Without the color, many chart symbols are very difficult to find in a maze of lines. In addition, copy paper is usually far flimsier than the government originals and will not hold up to very much usage. For planning charts, or when no other choices are available, a chart copy is better than no chart at all, but for most purposes copies should be avoided.

A big chart A big chart

A big chart spread out on the table makes planning do easy. The trouble with a pc is you can't see much of your route with any detail.

The paper chart

Looking at the paper chart of the area - it is much clearer on the paper chart that there is something to be avoided.
Two examples, the submarine wall south of southsea appears as a dotted line on a chartplotter. On the paper chart there is a big text block warning of the obstruction.
Secondly, the Varvassi wreck just off the needles. Doesn't look like much on a chart plotter either unless you zoom right in.

Plenty of "world class navigators" manage to bump into that.

"I don't doubt Wouters ability but the facts are that the vessel ran aground. Everyone makes mistakes and it's unfortunate that his is so public. But I can't help but feel that had the paper chart been on the chart table and a fix, DR and EP plotted every 6 minutes the vessel wouldn't have run aground. I appreciate that it's not "practical" to run on paper charts all the time on the Volvo boats. Someone has taken the decision that the risk of an incident doesn't warrant the inconvenience of navigating in a certain way."

In addition the paper chart of the area where Team Vestas grounded states that the reef may actually be several miles from its charted position, that the survey data was from the 1800s and that the eastern approach to the reef wasn't even surveyed due to it being so steep to and dangerous to approach.

It's worth looking online at for advice on the harbours and emergency pull outs you might need along the way. The site has navigation info for getting into harbour, berthing info, even shopping.

Best practise is to use paper charts on dry land to do the planning then program the chart plotter onboard Doing it this way you will actually do the planning twice.