Nautical Charts and Becoming Navigators!

One of the great gifts travellers have given their fellow man over the centuries is the art of cartography.

Great, bold adventurers ventured off long long ago, trying to make sense of the world we lived in and drawing its likeness for others to see and understand. Their endeavours were largely to help with trade and to mark borders and boundaries between empires. In vague lines, often surrounded by images of frightful creatures believed to be lurking in the unknown areas beyond, an image of lands and seas appeared.

Every adventurer and cartographer clarified previously drawn maps. Things became a little less fantastical and a little more real. Nothing changed things more than finally realizing that this planet we live on is a sphere and not flat. Knowing you could not just slip right off the edge of the world must have been a huge relief for sailors!

What a gift those maps and charts are!

Think about the challenges many of you likely encounter just trying to find your way on land, even with maps.  Yet, even without such wonders as Google Maps to help with directions, you can, at the very least, see where the roads are, identify some landmarks, read signs and, if you take a wrong turn or two, still find your way. It’s a little more complicated on water where those way-finding cues do not exist.

So, at the start of each new day on the Mediterranean, how are we to figure out where we’re going, how we’ll get there, and where we want to be by day’s end? This will be especially challenging if we move far enough away from the coastline so that we can no longer see it.

The answer, Dear Reader, lies in the myriad squiggly lines of today’s nautical charts.

Now I am no expert, but as I sit on these charts, I see that they are an aerial representation of a body of water and its coast.  Depending upon the chart I am analyzing, things change. I can be further away and looking at the entire Mediterranean, or closer and looking at the waters surrounding a single country.  The closer I get, the more the charts show me. It’s all a matter of scale. I like narrowing in and suddenly discovering things such as details of the coastline, its tide lines, marinas and ports.

We will need more than one big chart.  Our safety and efficiency lies in knowing the little details in the nautical charts for every country. We need to get right in close and see all that we need to see:

  • Water depth
  • Natural features of the seabed
  • Coastline details
  • Natural and human-made aids
  • Harbours, buildings and bridges
  • Low and high tides
  • Commercial ship and ferry lines (so we can avoid those!)
  • Currents (You should see the mess near the strait of Gibraltar!)

This is all part of what I have learned is called topography.  I am learning so many new words and it’s scary how many I still don’t understand. But this one, this one I know!

[ahem * clearing throat]

Topography: The three-dimensional arrangement of physical attributes (such as shape, height, and depth) of a land or water surface in a place or region. Physical features that make up the topography of an area include mountains, valleys, plains, around and within bodies of water. Human-made features such as roads, bridges, railroads, and landfills are also often considered part of a region’s topography.

[tail wags * head held high]

Nautical charts, although much better than they were centuries ago, are still regularly updated. Sailors and map makers are always adding marks, discovering details. That is why old or uncorrected charts should never be used for navigation, and it is also why, as much as we wanted to put charts and maps on our Christmas wish list, we won’t purchase most of them until closer to our travel date. So for now, we use a giant map of the Med for planning purposes only.

Don’t worry, we will have the charts we need.  We must; it is the law. Basically, without the right charts, you are not allowed to sail the Mediterranean. The question becomes whether we acquire the charts on paper or electronically.

Recent technological advancements mean even a “leisure sailor” can access and use charts that are available on demand with data that has been downloaded as recently as the night before use. You can choose to have the map on a screen (e.g., laptop, iPad) or on paper. Really though, you want paper.

Electricity and internet are not things you can fully depend upon when sailing. The last thing you want is to find yourself stranded somewhere because you didn’t download the map you wanted and don’t have internet access to download the map in the moment, or you downloaded the map but can’t view it because you don’t have access to a printer or electricity. It is always better to have a paper map of where you want to go and listen for radio broadcasts giving notice of urgent corrections such as a new shipwreck.

If you bought your chart a month or more before your trip, how do you make sure it is up to date? Well, from what Dad has explained to me, you use the Chart and Publication Correction Record Card system. A mouthful, I know.  Silly humans.  Basically, what it means is that the navigator (in our case, Dad) does not immediately update every chart he has for the Med each time a notice comes in over the radio or from the Notice to Mariners. Instead, the navigator creates a card for every chart and notes the corrections on these cards. When the time comes to use a specific chart, the navigator pulls the card associated with that chart and makes the collected corrections all at once. This system ensures that every chart is properly corrected prior to sailing off.

Today, various Digital Notices to Mariners systems are available. We are looking into the system that is best suited for sailing the Med. These systems send chart corrections by e-mail or web downloads, reducing the time and number of cards needed to sort out corrections for each chart. Also, the chart corrections are sent with tracings to assist with making the corrections. That means the navigator doesn’t have to do the math to ensure the scale of corrections matches the scale of the map. Phew.

My world is now full of concepts my brain is trying to comprehend: things like Mercator projection, longitude and latitude, bearing, magnetic north, compass rose, variation … . I’m finding it all too much.  I think that is why I am not the navigator. I suspect it is also why Mom isn’t too keen on being one either. [chuckle]

Dad is both our Captain and Navigator, although Mom will have to learn the skills as well, just in case. It is good to have back-up because the Navigator must:

  • plan the journey;
  • advise the crew (that would be me!) of estimated time to destinations;
  • be aware of the sailboat’s position at all times;
  • ensure hazards are avoided;
  • maintain the nautical charts, nautical publications, and navigational equipment; and
  • be responsible for meteorological equipment and communications.

It is a lot of responsibility. At least now the advent of the Global Positioning System (GPS) decreases the effort required to accurately determine one’s position. Could you imagine if the bipeds also had to learn celestial navigation in order to navigate the way sailors of earlier days did: by using maps of the heavens, not the earth?

How do you get around? Do you have GPS? Are you a good navigator?


10 Comments on “Nautical Charts and Becoming Navigators!

  1. Very much impressed, Monte, I am a very bad navigator, and I just imagined you in the open sea, no land in sight, that’s how my father was working all his life, you have to be well equiped, and with medications as well. I would also double all the gadgets: the ones I use, the others are lying well wrapped in a safe dry place, it’s the sea, have seen photoes where my father’s ship was slightly seen under the wave, like in “The Perfect Storm” film. Many people say Mediterannian is the “lake” and is safe, but I do not agree with them, it is always stormy near Bosphor (Dardanelly), when you pass isles between Greece and Cyprus, and near Egypt as well. I imagine how many challenges are waiting for you, Monte, and it is worth living. We will be with you during the whole journey and will support you in every possible way, and enjoy it together with you, adventure – is a wonderful thing!

    • Ah dear Val, thank you. I can feel your friendship and kindness through your words. Yes we will have many adventures and there will be storms. But we will do very little open sea sailing. We are doing coastal navigation … staying close to land. So hopefully if it gets really bad we can drop anchor in safe harbor. We are also sailing at the best time of year – May to October when the winds are kinder. I do think having a back-up for critical equipment is a very good idea! Greece, Cyprus and Egypt will be in 2017 – we will have acquired more experience by then! Thank you for always being there for us!

  2. Wow, so much to think about!! Thank goodness you have lots of time to plan ahead and are are learning all the safety measures. Even though something like this is not my cup of tea, I hope you get to live your dream!! Everyone should have a dream as big as this and strive for it. Your enthusiasm warms my heart, I cant wait to see all the great pictures you will take.

  3. You will have a blast!!!! Coastal sailing, great idea for your first “big” advanture for sure. I would personally feel more comfortable too, knowing help is just a few minutes away in case something went wrong. Even in the worst case scenario, you could anchor, book a hotel room and watch the storm go by. perfect!
    I did some sailing years ago, when I was around 23 or so. A course my father had won, and given to my sister and I… Georgian Bay sailing for a week! It was beautiful. They showed us how to sail, how to read the map (brief intro)but since my sister and I were such “Divas”, we opted to let the 2 professionals take control while we enjoyed the ride. It was quite an experience. oh, we saw it all! We walked through waters with snakes, had a mini 1 day storm, had one island owner come warn us about setting foot on the island and our little sailboat’s anchor got lodged in the bottom of the bay (but our amazing guide was quick to go fish it out). But there were many good times too, like when ended up on an island full of blueberries, and had blueberry pancakes the next morning.

    You will have a grand time! We all can’t wait to hear all your stories! Also looking forward to your Cyprus sailing trip sceduled for 2017. I was in Cyprus when I was 7 and can still remember visiting the ancient ruins in Salamis, near Famagusta, swimming in the Mediterranean Sea (so salty!)and my dad bringing back a live starfish! That is a moment that will forever be engrained in my memory. I’m hoping you will be able to visit these places too. It must have changed tremendously since, that was over 40 years ago. We still have the old tapes!

    oh… so the question was actually “how do you get around?” Well, if we don’t know where we are going, we usually check on Google maps first to get an idea, and also bring our GPS system although we have learned to not rely on it 100% as it does sometimes fail. For longer trips, i.e. to Florida, we used to get a “triptik” through CAA, a page by page map that they would highlight the best routes for us. We found this VERY practical as it also had points of interests, hotels etc. This was before the GPS days, now all of this can be found on your GPS, but it’s still easy to use a triptik and they can tell you in advance which routes have construction on them if you want to avoid them (and how to avoid big cities like Washington). So all depending where we are going, a combination of different navigation methods may be used.

    • Maybe in the summer we should take you out for a little sail. Not a big boat — but could be fun for you since you have all those wonderful memories. That is what life is about in the end. A collection of memories. SO making them as amazing as possible seems like a pretty good idea.

      2017 will be more than just Cyprus of course as we leave from Morocco and make our way back towards Croatia. That is assuming things settle enough in many of those countries.

      Look forward to seeing if Dad can fish our own dinner on occasion…. I love your blueberry story~

      We don’t have GPS but I think we will likely have it built in when we get a new car years from now. It is so darn handy. I had never heard of TriTik! thank you for sharing that resource with us!

  4. Wow a lot of planning and fortunately a lot of time to think about it and learn. I would be of not help to you since I have no sense of direction and I am not good at reading maps. I do love sailing though but have never been on an overnight trip. In my early 20’s I went on a katamaran in Florida and a fairly large sailboat out on the ocean for a day….I was the passenger just enjoying the ride 😉

    You will have an amazing experience…..I will look forward to all the stories and pictures!

    • Passenger is also good! I think Mom wishes she good but with just two and a half crew members I am afraid she’s going to have to get up to snuff and fast! hehehehee….

      Catamarans are steadier. not a bad idea if sea sickness is an issue.

  5. Monte, do you know if you get seasick?

    My biped mother has a terrible sense of direction and sad to say, she has the best sense of direction in her family of origin, so she always had to sit in the front seat and navigate while her father drove — and they drove — across the U.S.; to and from Mexico (from Philadelphia); through England, Scotland and Wales; and, around France, Italy and Spain. GPS navigation has been a Godsend for her and when she and Dad recently drove around Ireland (on the wrong side, no less), they were utterly dependent on it, especially on the “B” roads in the countryside–often unsigned. Of course, there are those places where there’s no 3G signal. (You can now download Google maps which is helpful even if you don’t have a cell/mobile signal. Being people of a certain age, they had a 125 page road atlas as well.)
    It sounds like your father has the maritime navigation thing figured out. I wouldn’t count on that “sailing on the Med is like sailing on a lake” trope. There’s plenty of underwater archaeology involving shipwrecks of all ages in the Med., so let’s hear it for modern weather satellites.
    I’m figuring that you will be the official boat mascot. A great job. All you will have to do is sit back and look cute while your bipeds crew the boat.
    Your jealous, phurry Philly phriend, Dino

    • I do not know yet if I get seas sick … that is why we are going for a test run this summer in Greece for 2 weeks. Mom struggles so it should be an interesting time!

      I have to admit I am glad that we have multiple options. We will depend a great deal on the GPS but I think – just like your bipeds have that road Atlas – my bipeds need to know how to read a nautical map. Because you never know … right?

      Mascot? well yes … that does sound about right! And hey – my friend … maybe you and your bipeds will join us for a stretch!

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