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The Best and the Brightest

At Sea — May 2001
At Sea — May 2001
By Capt. Bill Pike

The Best and the Brightest
Is electronic cartography on a laptop better than clunky, old paper charts? Well, duh...

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Okay, nav fans. I know you’ve heard the hoary old caveat, “Make sure you have backup paper charts onboard, and chart tools, too—just in case you lose electrical power and/or your plotter dies.”

Sound advice? Heck yes, although it’s about as obvious to real navigators as admonishments to wear PFDs at appropriate times and abstain from anchoring in shipping lanes. But there’s a questionable implication embedded in that caveat. Just because paper charts stand ready to bail out their electronic cousins at any moment, it doesn’t necessarily follow that paper is somehow vastly superior, even when teamed up with an arsenal of chart tools (parallel rules, dividers, sextants, etc.) dripping with seafaring romance and tradition.

Oh sure. I’m willing to concede that there used to be some reason for the reverence for paper charts. Back in the misguided days of satellite navigation the fixes I used to get were so infrequent and sometimes so implausible that they were well worth replacing with the results of a good sextant shot. Or the criss-cross of a couple of bearing lines from a good radar. Or, if neither of these options served, the navigational advice of a land-based clairvoyant via the SSB. Later, after development of Loran A and then Loran C, signal problems still often made positioning suspect, at least in some parts of the world.

I was working on an ore carrier when the first Loran Cs began surfacing on the Great Lakes during the late ‘70s. As I recall, we nicknamed the unit on the Roger Bloug “The Hurdy Gurdy,” mostly because the funny little gizmo performed like a mystical black box that, for purposes of practical navigation, was about as useful and accurate as a barrel organ operated by a tin-cup-carrying monkey. Even when GPS first came out, with its uniformly accurate latitude and longitude readouts, the physical distance from chart table to helm station remained absolutely the same. During the early 90s I spent more than a few nervous moments on lonely bridges at night lunging back and forth between dimly lit chart tables and even dimmer helm stations, trying to connect what I was seeing through the wheelhouse windows with what little I could glean from frantic bursts of chart work.

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This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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