|Charts separate men from apes, but the path from paper to digital passes through the jungle.|
I recently heard Dr. Juan Enriquez, a leading authority on life science, explain that human DNA has a 98.8-percent overlap with simians. The genetic building blocks that produced me (and you, no offense meant) vary from a monkey’s by only 1.2 percent! Yes, I’ve been listening to big thinkers again, and once more charts came to my mind (see “Stupid Chart Tricks,” January 2004). You see Enriquez went on to explain that the relatively small but key difference between humans and chimps is not tools or talk but the ability to communicate information across time, the capacity to create alphabets, books, constitutions, computer code, and—shaking my vine most especially—maps.
For years I’ve lived in awe of the nautical chart, which I first experienced as a large piece of paper brimming with valuable information expressed with a carefully developed graphic alphabet. On a single sheet you can see the work of explorers, surveyors, and cartographers working together over generations to locate, catalog, and diagram all the above- and underwater features you need to safely navigate that square of ocean. When you become adept at reading a chart, you can vividly picture what the area looks like, and better yet, it’s also designed to be the workspace you use to actually get there. I love charts and concur with Enriquez that they are one of the most evolved of human accomplishments.
Moreover, charts can be beautiful, particularly the old-fashioned ones that were etched by hand. Look at the level and artfulness of detail on the bit of 1853 San Francisco harbor chart on page 46. You could have used it to find a decent place to anchor or sail up to a particular dock, then to get around town. Up in the corner (outside the illustration) there’s even a key, in a fine script, to important locations like the harbormaster, post office, and jail. Maybe I have an overactive imagination, but I can practically smell the tarred manila and hear my gold-crazed passengers clambering down the gangway. Today this piece of paper is also dramatic graphic evidence of the city’s incredible growth, a process in which charts played an important part, which is why, in addition to world exploration and empire building, Enriquez characterizes map-making as a cornerstone of civilization.
But now we’re going digital. All the world’s alphabets, graphical and musical included, are collapsing into sublimely simple but powerful 0s and 1s. Ironically, and delightfully, the high-resolution San Francisco image and thousands of other antique chart scans are available for your perusal and downloading in the historical section of NOAA’s Web site, www.chartmaker.ncd.noaa.gov. You can even print them onto paper, though the unusual file format NOAA uses makes that quite a chore.
The topic of formats brings me to some less-pleasant aspects of our paper-to-digital transition. According to a marine-industry committee working on the issue, electronic charts are currently in at least 15 different data formats delivered via at least 13 different media formats. I can recollect days in Hispaniola using scrounged charts printed in Spanish, and I got by; maybe I had to puzzle over some of the notes with a bilingual dictionary, but the medium, paper, is universal, and so are most of the graphics. Today, if you try to stick anything in your plotter except the right type of memory cartridge with the right type of charts on it, you’ll get nada. This is not an advancement of our noble ability to share information.
Maybe one format of electronic charts will serve all your needs? It is true that the major vendors have huge portfolios, but as best as I can determine, no one has everything. And in some parts of the world, one hydrographic office—which is where vendors get most of their data—did better work than another. Plus many of the chart companies are beginning to license privately made cartography, even doing their own surveying, a nifty trend that I’ll cover next month in part two of this column.
This article originally appeared in the March 2004 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.