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In praise of older hydrography

Somehow you'd think the scale would be better.

Thank the Canadian Economic Action Plan, I suppose, for the low-res graphic above. For those sailors and casual readers who may wonder if they need to up their kale intake, it's the cover of the latest "Chart 1", the Canadian Hydrographic Service's glossary of terms and graphics that is the key to understanding and decoding (at least until it become second nature to do so) the paper charts mariners, including recreational sailors, are legally required to carry aboard under the Carriage of Charts provisions of the Canada Shipping Act, and which are available at the better sort of nautically minded shop. In some cases (but not all), electronic representations of these charts will suffice, but you need to have Chart 1 at hand as a navigational Rosetta Stone to read the hieroglyphs chart makers customarily use. Contrary to popular belief, the closer one sails to shore, the more crowded the water gets from the view of the nav table (another rapidly outmoding term) or the helm plotter.
The U.S. cover is also a litttle hard to read, almost as if it's trickling down.
Of the several countries' waters in which I've sailed (Canada, the U.S., Antigua, the USVIs, the U.K., France and Portugal), most seem to follow similar conventions regarding their nautical charts, and, as world shipping grew, this was reinforced in the last century by adherence to the standards of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Looking back, the science of hydrography as a practice evolved in Europe during the Age of Exploration, although the Arabs and Chinese certainly made excellent maps and navigational tools. While the actual charts of coasts and little sugar-producing islands were guarded with the same strategically prompted ferocity as are nuclear missile blueprints are today, the conventions of hydrographical measurement tended to standardize on the British, and, to a lesser extent, the French, model. This was particularly true after the fixing of longitude became accurate and mechanically aided, and with the introduction of superior cartographic techniques. Yes, the books linked are strongly recommended for those sailors capable of prising themselves away from the latest romantic peregrinations of The Bachelorette.

The result is that, with any relatively modern country's equivalent of Chart 1, the sailor can use their local hydrographic services and charts. Bias does play a role here, however, as a few countries have charted most of the world for their own national reasons: the U.K.'s Admiralty charts are generally considered the most thorough, whereas the U.S. NOAA charts are both free in electronic form and are in easy-to-download formats amenable to printing. My own choice would be dependent on destination (former British possessions tend to be better charted by the British) and (this is critical) the last update of the chart in question. If the surveyor was Captain Cook, admirable, innovative and careful as that particular hydrographer/explorer was, take the observation as, at best, provisional, and charts based on inaccurate information, irrespective of the media of paper or pixels, is why you keep a watch. Even the chart printed yesterday unrolled aboard still whiffing of ink (or the plastic and brass of an SD card) is only a snapshot in time of what is really in front of one's bow.
One of these things is not like the other.
As such, the debate between which is better, paper or pixels, is, I find, rather sterile. As this brief but excellent paper examines, it is the evolving human tendency to "trust" machines that is causing to fall into abeyance the simple acts of direct observation that would keep electronically navigated vessels safer by simply looking out and around in order to provide a real-world context for what the Playstation Plotter is insisting is real. Any trip to a restaurant in the last five to 10 year will reveal several beautiful couples facing each other with their eyes locked on their smartphones, which, contrary to the name, do not make you smart. And yet I am far from a Luddite; along with Ben Ellison of, I believe the fault is not in our plotters, but in ourselves.
Get the picture, sailor?

This longing for mitigated and interpolated reality is curious to me in the same manner as gazing at a hammer before pounding a nail is. On the other hand, I started sailing in 1999, and, perhaps more importantly, started navigating in 1999 via formal instruction...and I have yet to stop. While plotters existed in somewhat more basic forms in 1999 and were even acknowledged as the coming thing, I was trained to use paper charts in order to grasp the essentials of navigation, such as taking bearings off land marks, the difference between magnetic and true compass readings, and using every bit of information available to me, such as "running the depth contour" to give me a greater confidence that me and my boat were where we should be...or to suggest and confirm that we were not, a situation that can evidently affect even the most well-equipped vessels. Plotters are great and are inarguably convenient, naturally, but I am starting to conclude that they only make you a better navigator if you were a pretty good navigator to begin with. If you are not, on what basis are you going to find errors that could kill you? Faith-based navigation works about as well as anything else faith-based: while there are aphoristically no atheists in foxholes, there are no fundamentalists wielding dividers.

The British example of eyestrain.
For those who suspect that their plotters, if not actively leading them astray, are not teaching them the situational awareness critical to safe and thorough navigation, there's hope in the form of formal instruction, or even in the purchase of dead-simple flash cards and books with which the sensible sailor can grasp the related fields of chart mastery, buoyage, pilotage and who exactly gives way to whom in a crowded (or not) seaway.
Don't leave dock without them.
While British (and while you have to grasp the IALA buoyage system differences), these are of enormous help in relating what the charts says to what you are rapidly approaching and what that might mean to earning a sundowner.

Particularly helpful, and thanks to John C. for the review.

Clearly, if one wishes to spend enough money, there are electronic plotter setups,  particularly the newer (and priced accordingly) ones that provide a 3D view, that can allow easy navigation, especially at night or in fog when, short of creeping right up to a numbered buoy (which I have done more than once) to confirm one's location, you have little other options short of stopping, heaving to, or anchoring, if possible.
Bay Lake, as Canadian as "Avenue Road".

A compromise, rather than the multiplicity of proprietary formats of the various plotter manufacturers is to use a means to rendr paper charts in electronic form, as is the case with the free OpenCPN and other raster-based displays. For some, the familiarity of the paper chart (which have the advantage of the standardized symbols as well as the typically faster updating of a national hydrographical authority) makes the use of raster or vector (know the difference!) charts in electronic form easy, and in some cases, intuitive.

Warning: May not be intuitive.

So if you have paper charts, as is still required, you might as well use them, or at least be able to read them. Gleaning through your local charts with the relevant pages of Chart 1, perhaps with a suitable beverage, is still a good place to start. I daresay that you'll get more out of the fleeting squiggles on your nav app-equipped iPad if you choose to use one. I opt for a mix because sailing for me is more engaging when I have puzzles of trim, helm and, yes, navigation to solve. I have a GPS, several in fact, but I like to take bearings and make little cocked hats and whip out the sextant and even to swing the lead to determine that it's right. It nearly always is, of course. It's the electronic chart that may be wrong: Paper charts, too, can be, or at least you can be the first poor bugger to confirm that by means other than mere charts.


Ken Goodings said...

Gosodone Marc. On my 1st ever CPS navigaton test in the 1984 CPS Boating class I thought that a circle on the chart marked RC meant... "Roman Catholic Church." No points for that one, said the examiner.

Rhys said...

Heh...we've all been there, Ken.