A well-tempered chart drawer

After an exhausting slog up the Sea of Cortez along the Baja California east coast from Cabo San Lucas, you have beaten through the venturi winds of the Ceralvo channel, and negotiated the shallows of Canal de San Lorenzo on the final leg into La Paz. The channel markers and multiple forward and backward ranges are confusing, and there is a strong current. The day’s light is disappearing, and the chart you are using is too large scale to show adequate detail. You were sure you had a harbor chart of La Paz, but where is it? Was it a separate chart or incorporated on that chart of Plans and Anchorages of the Baja? Where is it?

At this point, it is too late. You are disorganized. Not knowing which charts you have and where they are has become dangerous. Organizing is an urgent necessity for safety and peace of mind. The amount of information available to mariners today is staggering and extremely useful, if you can collect the right references, organize them, know where they are stowed, and read them before transiting the region.

The basic reference library to help you negotiate the waterways and avoid hitting the hard edges is composed of Sailing Directions, Coast Pilots, Light Lists, Cruising Guides, SSCA Bulletins, and nautical charts in addition to necessary navigation and seamanship references: tide tables, tidal current tables, Nautical Almanac, sight-reduction tables, American Practical Navigator, by Nathaniel Bowditch (H.O. Pub. No. 9), and Chapman Piloting: Seamanship & Small Boat Handling by Elbert S. Maloney. For safety, if you need any one of these references just once, it was worth buying and storing. However, we will focus mainly on nautical chartshow to choose, organize, and stow them.

Charts can talk to you, show you the way, and take on a charismatic personality of their own if you give them a chance. But treated as second-class crewmembers, thrown in a heap, they will let you down. Fitting a reference library into a small boat and cruising budget is a quandary, and becomes a series of excruciating decisions. Before buying the first chart for a cruise, map out an “information resource plan,” and treat your charts with respect. Whether world cruising or gunkholing Long Island Sound, organization is a must. Here is how to do it before you leave the dockThe information resource plan· Define the voyage area · Set a budget for reference material· Designate a stowage area· OrganizeDefine the voyage limits, and then carefully determine where along the route it will be possible to purchase the charts and guides. When sailing from New England to St. Thomas and back for the season, all the material must be aboard before leaving your last U. S. port or, perhaps, before leaving home.

For a circumnavigation from California, for example, the next likely supply port for charts will be as far away as New Zealand or Australia, although some charts will be probably available in Fiji. When voyaging from California to New Zealand aboard our 32-foot sloop Dulcinea some years ago, we had charts as far as Tahiti, thinking charts surely would be available in that South Pacific crossroads. What a mistake! None were to be had. We borrowed and traced a number of charts to New Zealand, and were quite handicapped with insufficient information.

Budget: Having decided the potential boundaries for your voyage, set a budget that is as liberal as possible. Reference materials can be quite expensive, except for catalogs, so it is important to plan carefully to buy just what is needed. The U.S. NIMA (formerly DMA) series of nine chart catalogs covers the world, excluding the U.S., and are free from the U.S. Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), or from a NOAA chart agent. NOAA’s National Ocean Service (NOS) also publishes six free catalogs covering the charts of the U.S., including the Great Lakes. The British Hydrographer of The Navy publishes the Catalogue of Admiralty Charts, which can be purchased from an Admiralty agent.

Many U.S. chart sellers are also Admiralty agents. Other countries publish charts for their own regions, and world voyagers will probably use them in those countries. But, initially, the worldwide coverage of the U.S and British charts is all you need.

These U.S. and British catalogs form the backbone of a chart purchase plan and, later, the chart index plan. Catalog pages represent large ocean areas, with each chart graphically placed in its proper position. At a glance, one can see the areas covered by every chart. Acquire the catalogs, coast pilots, sailing directions, and cruising guides before buying any charts. What to buy?

Which guides should you buy? In general, we start by reviewing the government publications, knowing there will be no small boat information and no visitor information except in Coast Pilots. However, we like to have one government book and one cruising guide for each area. There is no substitute for browsing before buying. Compare the cruising guide to the government book to determine if they are essentially the same, as some guides are merely restatements of the government publication. If so, disqualify one from consideration.

If there are several cruising guides to an area, compare them. Usually only one is necessary. It is especially helpful to read about an area you have visited to check the book for accuracy and completeness. Another source of information is the monthly Seven Seas Cruising Association Bulletin. SSCA is a non-profit organization of cruisers devoted to disseminating information through letters from sailors who are actually voyaging in small boats, so the focus provides that important “local knowledge.” A lot of information is available for $29.00 per year. We subscribed for years, and built a mini-reference library of Bulletins before actually going voyaging.

As you review your new cruising guides, sailing directions, and catalogs, make a list of charts required. Now for some excruciating decisions: Will the budget allow purchase of all the charts wanted? The options are to reduce the number of charts, substitute chart copies, or buy used charts. We were willing to use some copies and some used charts. Using out-of-date charts is not recommended and can be dangerous. But the danger can be mitigated by having up-to-date Coast Pilots, Sailing Directions, and Light Lists, recognizing that, for the most part, only the man-made chart features change. Another possible compromise is to eliminate the ocean sailing charts. On Universal Plotting Sheets, the exact locations of dangers can be plotted from careful study of the Sailing Directions.

Chart copies are available from a number of sources, some of which are listed in the sidebar. Copies are a viable compromise, but there are a number of caveats. Commercially available chart copies cost approximately one quarter to one half the government issue price. The paper is relatively lightweight and not water resistant. Erasures are damaging. Copies are not in color, and some are reduced in size. Photocopies must be stored so that the print is not against plastic, which will degrade the copy. They are often available only in portfolios of 10 to 24 charts, reducing freedom of choice. The economy of purchasing copies could be negated if some charts in a portfolio are not needed. Copies of British Admiralty charts are not available since these charts are copyrighted. Copy distortion

Our friends Rae and Mike aboard the Canadian yacht Stepping Stone had a huge collection of worldwide charts. Before leaving for their circumnavigation, they showed us how to organize our charts. We copied most of their collection at a downtown copy shop. But bewaresome copy machines produce copies of a different size than the original. According to the Xerox technical representative in Seattle, the Xerox model 2510 is within specification at plus 4% of original size. After copying hundreds of charts, we learned that the copies were 7% longer, but the same width. The net result is a somewhat inaccurate distance measurement. Another drawback of copying friends’ charts is that they may be out of date. However, all U.S. charts can be brought and kept up to date using either the Notice to Mariners, prepared and published by NIMA, NOS, and the U. S. Coast Guard, or the Local Notice to Mariners put out by each U.S. Coast Guard district. These publications are free and contain a treasure-trove of information affecting navigational safety. There is a convenient semi-annual Summary of Corrections for easing the process. The DMA database can even be accessed by personal computer and modem free of charge (see sidebar for details).Commercial chart copies are usually the most recent issue, but be sure to ask before buying copies. Thermal copies and chart reductions are unsatisfactory compromises. Thermal copies, sometimes called vellums, have poor resolution (fuzzy) and turn brown with time, while reductions require a magnifying glass to study.Highlighting pens help to overcome the lack of color on copies. While studying a chart, use yellow for sand or land, blue for shallows to 10 fathoms, orange for rocks, coral, or other dangers. Using a highlighter is a good study technique that enhances the readability of a monochrome chart. Also, highlighting shorelines and shallows forces you to study a chart very closely. We “highlight” each chart copy just before using it. This way the chart’s prominent features will be fresh in our minds.

Storage: Aboard Holy Grail we have more than 900 charts. Organizing and storing them all was a major undertaking. Before getting started, survey the boat and decide where the reference library and charts will live. It is far better to stow charts flat, as rolled charts curl and are difficult to tame. A better alternative is to stow charts flat on a bunk-board under the mattress. Our 900 charts raised one of the mattresses three or four inches. In addition to a bunk’s “deep” storage, for current use a handy chart storage spot near the nav station is also helpful, preferably with space for an envelope of charts. We use a rolling box that hides under a counter top. In addition, we built a two-foot bookshelf near the nav station for material from reference library that is currently in use, as well as material covering areas well ahead of us so we can study before we arrive.

Organizing: There are three steps to organizing. Highlight your charts in the catalogs, group them into envelopes, and create an index.

For each chart on board, using a bright fluorescent color, highlight the chart’s outline and number on the graphic page of the catalog. At a glance it is easy to see exactly which charts are aboard, and to trace the flow of charts along your intended route. Establish regions

Next, organize the charts into regions of about 30 to 60 charts. We broke up the Pacific, for example, into four regions: southeast, south central, southwest, and north. Make a plastic envelope for each group. Chart storage envelopes are easily made with four- to six-mil clear plastic sheeting, available from home improvement stores in three- or four-foot-wide rolls of 25, 50, and 100 feet. Bear in mind that the finished envelope must be a total of four inches longer and wider than your largest chart, folded in half. Scotch brand 1 7/8-inch mailing tape works well to seal the edges. Chart copies should be folded print-side-in to guard against the print’s resting against plastic. One fold is best, so storage envelopes for full-sized charts generally turn out about 28 inches by 40 inches. Index each envelope, making two copies. The index page should show the information fields one feels are most useful. One copy of the index should be placed in the envelope, so the contents can be reviewed without removing charts. The other copy goes into a file for reference when trading charts, discussing them, or buying new ones.If the index is created with a computer database, future editing will be easier. Also, the database’s search capability will be helpful in finding any place name entered into the description field, such as each of a chart’s insets or plans. The description field can be expanded beyond chart titles to include key place names, or plans included on the chart.

Over the years of preparing to go voyaging, one collects a myriad of miscellaneous information, sketch charts, personal recommendations from other voyagers, magazine articles, land maps, and post cards of islands that show the passes most vividly. Generally, we enter into the computer snippets of information in a card file utility, with the cards labeled: for example, Fiji 1, Fiji 2, Fiji Bibliography, etc. Longer articles cut from magazines are filed into a “Cruising Information” file and logged on the bibliography card for that area. No computer aboard? Just use three-by-five index cards. They work perfectly well.

Having an organized information resource plan before buying books and charts will save money. Organizing the material so you know what is on board, and can find it, will enhance safety and peace of mind. Also, when reaching the next resource supply port, charts will not be dog-eared. They will be in good condition to trade with voyagers heading the other way.

Aboard Holy Grail, our goal is to visit every place for which we have a chart!

By Ocean Navigator