Commentary: The End of Paper Charts?

C&K Editor Jeff Moag says trust your skills, not your batteries


Photo by Paul Villecourt

Photo by Paul Villecourt

By Jeff Moag

My buddy Duane said it best: “I’d never trust my life to something that runs on batteries.” But that’s where the digital revolution is taking us.

Last night, NOAA announced that it will stop printing nautical charts on paper.

Don’t panic. You will still be able to print out the digital charts yourself, and you should. But here’s what is troubling to me: One of the agencies most responsible for ensuring our safety at sea thinks we should depend on electronic aids rather than our own knowledge.

That’s fine in the bridge of a supertanker, with its redundant systems and layers of plate glass separating the navigation computers from the elements. It’s quite another in a kayak.

I’ll confess that I rely on a GPS more than I should. I’ve got a bad habit of tucking the thing under a bungee on my deck and leaving it turned on. I check how fast I’m going, how far I’ve gone, the distance and direction to my next destination.

I still can’t program waypoints worth a damn, but playing with my GPS has taught me one thing for sure–nothing burns through batteries faster than a GPS.

And that brings me back to Duane’s point. If your GPS gets wet, or its batteries go flat, or a Great White eats it for lunch you still need to find your way home. If you don’t have a compass and a nautical chart, and a good working knowledge of how to use them, you have no business being on the water. Period.

Jeff Moag is the editor of Canoe & Kayak

Photo by Paul Villecourt

Photo by Paul Villecourt


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  • Alex Kerney

    USGS move to really low quality paper for top’s too over the summer. Apparently they’re outsourcing them rather than printing themselves. I’ve been investigating printing on tyvek, and making exactly the sheets we need.

  • Gerhardt Raven

    I spent four years training for marine search and rescue. We used radar and a chart plotter to navigate at 30 knots through rough seas in the dark in water strewn with rock and logs as a regular exercise. The mantra was that the only thing you can trust is your eyes and the paper chart. We lost all power one night after stuffing the bow into a steep 12 foot wave. We didn’t even have a light to read the paper chart so all we had left was our eyes and wits. Don’t go out without a paper chart.

  • Christopher Crowhurst

    Xerox Never Tear polyester paper, I print all my own charts on it, waterproof, tear proof, and low cost.

  • Tom

    Another case of never letting the facts get in the way of a good, rousing, social-emotional media story! NOAA is no longer printing standard maps that soon become outdated. They are continuing to offer Print On Demand (POD) charts that will be updated weekly and able to be purchased. Granted, that could be a hassle, but planning means you will still be able to utilize a printed NOAA chart as part of your navigational arsenal. Currently paper charts are based on older, static data. The new ones will feature updated changes. While I very much believe that dependency upon battery-powered technology is very unwise, I think the more timely charts are an improvement and still available for printed info.

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