There Be Dragons (but they aren't where they used to be)


Maps (and their maritime versions, charts) are abstractions of the places we travel.    They project geography, history, technology, politics, commerce, and even art.

The very definition of explorer rounds to traveler without maps.   We celebrate those who traveled the uncharted world and secured it with soundings, but dismiss as imprudent those who would travel without a chart today. The term itself -- uncharted territory -- remains a primary abstraction for the dangerous unknown, though few regions of our world have remained uncharted in the lifetime of any living person.

Today's recreational boater may have few paper charts.  Traveling close to home, especially in the Pacific Northwest, you're seldom far from visible landmarks, and the shoal waters are the exception rather than the rule.  The electronic surrogates for charts are rich in functionality and reduce the complexity of navigation, telling you your heading, orienting you on a chart that moves with you, and zoom easily to frame your perspective at a suitable scale.  Any smartphone or tablet can be equipped with free chart plotting software and extensive chart sets can be had for a few dollars.  And they work wonderfully well.  Until they don't.

To travel without paper charts is to hang your security and your life itself on the performance of your alternator, belts, batteries, myriad connectors and brackets and electronic devices that all serve in a hostile environment of vibration, corrosion, electrolysis, and yes, lets admit it... sub-optimal maintenance.  Stuff breaks, and boat stuff breaks more often.  The dragons no longer haunt the uncharted reaches of the map, they lurk behind bulkheads, in bilges, and in the dark regions of engine compartments.   They hide behind the placard "NO USER SERVICEABLE PARTS INSIDE". 

I have recently installed several species of dragons on Ripple in preparation for a trip up the Inside Passage.  But I have also set about acquiring as complete a set of paper charts as I can manage for the waters I will travel.  To buy these charts new from authorized purveyors of US or Canadian charts would cost several thousands of dollars. If X is the number of charts you need, multiply by $20. That's a lot of money for insurance, which is largely the purpose served by these charts for most recreational mariners.  

Many feel that multiple devices with electronic charts are sufficient protection.  A chart plotter, a tablet, a smartphone, and a laptop with PDF versions of the appropriate charts affords four levels of redundancy.  Governmental agencies that maintain these charts do not at this time agree, requiring up-to-date paper charts of the highest resolution available for commercial vessels.  

If you are old-school and decide to have the paper, you have to procure, organize, store, and access them at appropriate times, so they have to fit into your budget and your storage plans, they have to have a secure home in your boat, and they must be cross-referenced to your daily travel plans.

My approach has been to find used charts for as much of the trip as I can, and to buy new charts for essential charts I can't find.  I've amassed 75 SE Alaska charts, and 60 of the BC Coast.  I'm hoping to fill in the bare spots (especially the BC Coast, the Haida Gwais, and the western side of Vancouver Island) as time goes on.  No, they are not up to date, and no, I won't be annotating all 130 charts with official updates.   But with some notable exceptions, I'm banking on the changes in this area as minor, and that they will serve me well.  Again, they are not my sole navigational resource.

I store them in a chart safe sewn of Sunbrella and clear vinyl, constructed as an accordion file that will neatly manage a half dozen or a hundred charts, as well as a portable chart table that moves easily from cabin to bridgedeck.  The chart table also has a clear vinyl flap that protects the chart from rain or spray, and keeps the chart where I want it to be in a busy cockpit.

Navigation resources, old and new: Note that the clear vinyl extends an inch or so
beyond the chart, even with a spiral-bound chart folio instead of one or two free charts 

I have as much invested in my charts as I do in my chart plotter, but I've gotten most of them second-hand at good prices, and unlike most of my boating expenditures, I can probably recover their cost when I pass them on to another frugal navigator.  If not, their artistic virtues and shamanic spirit will decorate my dotage and remind me of exquisite passages and dumb-ass decisions that I survived when I could still button my shirt straight.
~ 0 ~

A note about chart purveyors:  The least expensive charts I have found are from The Frugal Navigator, a mail-order authorized dealer whose charts are available for a good deal less than other dealers I've encountered.  The charts are printed on substantial paper that looks and feels more durable and heavier than the charts once issued by the gub'mint. They are beautiful artifacts.  I have no connection with them except as a satisfied customer.






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