Warning - this is a controversial subject. Actually, to call this controversial may be an understatement. I know many of you will disagree strongly with this premise. But the subject is real and worthy of discussion. My intent is not to cause a holy war but instead to promote thought and discussion. After all if we agreed on everything, the conversations would be boring. When we respectfully disagree, discuss, and honestly look at different sides, we can begin to find what's right for each of us.
While Karen and I often co-write newsletter segments, this segment is all Jeff.
First, I believe the *most* dangerous thing to have onboard is a schedule. I've seen too many people get into serious trouble because they had to be at a certain place at a certain time. I've seen seasons end for cruisers. And I've even seen people sell their boats because of an incident caused by a schedule. I know all experienced cruisers will agree that a schedule is the most dangerous thing to have onboard.
Then what's the second most dangerous thing?
Today, I believe it is paper charts. My writing of this segment is based on a press release issued by US/NOAA yesterday titled, "NOAA announces the end of traditional paper nautical charts." In their announcement, NOAA warned that they would no longer be printing paper charts after April 13, 2014. Other companies can print the charts but there will no longer be price-fixed, standard NOAA paper charts from the US government. I think that's a big announcement and is just one more of a series of nails in the coffin of paper charts. It acknowledges what has happened in every other industry which has experienced similar technology changes. In this case, it's the chart image, not the media, that's important.
My feelings about this started long ago. I was taught to navigate using dead reckoning by my father on his sailboat many years ago. For years, Karen and I only piloted with paper charts and until a few years ago we always had paper charts out in our pilothouse with our position updated every hour at a minimum. A couple of times a year we'd turn off all electronics and practice dead reckoning using paper to keep our skills up. Offshore, overnight passages were taken very seriously with pre-planned DR positions calculations, planned speed, and course all worked out.
Back in these early-to-mid 2000's years, most cruising boats had a single laptop and a basic mobile phone. Because I wrote 3 chartplotter mobile phone products for Maptech, we had more devices than most boats but even then we only had 2 laptops and 3 mobile phones.
In 2005 we piloted our boat from Maine to Key West covering the Raymarine chartplotter and only using a 2" Palm handheld for navigation. If the weather was bad, we used radar and the full suite of electronics onboard but the charts were all displayed on a 2" screen. Needless to say, we made it and I learned an amazing amount from that experience.
Over time the number of computer devices onboard all boats grew dramatically. Now most couples each have their own laptop and smartphone. New tablet/iPad devices are multiplying and most boats have one or more chartplotters. This wasn't a doubling of technology - it was a tripling or more. We now had different chart displays created by different manufacturers with new and exciting capabilities. 3D, crowd-sourcing, radar integration, AIS, and more became common. All of these computing devices could connect to a GPS. Many even had one built in. The typical boat grew from having a chartplotter GPS to having 4 or more GPS's. I can easily put my hands onto 10 different and independent GPS's on my boat along with 3 built-in Garmin chartplotters and 6 instrument display screens at my helms. I admit, I'm geekier than most, but there are more computing devices today on all boats.
I used to feel that paper added redundancy. The electronics were better and had more features but I still liked having paper to fall back on. I knew that electronic charts would eventually replace paper charts because of the added capabilities offered as hardware redundancy became more common.
Then something else happened. Having all of these electronic chart products onboard made boaters less likely to update their paper charts. We carried about $800 of paper charts and found it harder to justify the annual expense. As ActiveCaptain grew and we started meeting hundreds of boaters each season, we'd be onboard and I'd ask about their paper charts. It was common to find charts that were 3 years old. It was not unusual to find charts that were more than 5 years old.
In addition I noticed that on many helms the paper charts were acting mainly as coasters. Sure, they were there but they weren't even open. There were no pencil marks, course lines, erasures, or time marks. They were as fresh as the day they were purchased because, well, they weren't really being used anymore. This wasn't from a lack of skill or experience. I saw this on boats with tens of thousand of miles under the keel. It was because when they were underway, they were using the best charts they had onboard, the electronic ones.
Right around this time, C-Map started a campaign about the dangers of out-of-date charts. NOAA started releasing updated charts almost every day. I witnessed this early because of all the navigation product integration we were doing with ActiveCaptain. Some navigation products actually update their charts from NOAA servers whenever there is an update. Amazingly today, literally hundreds of new charts are released every month from NOAA. This all started to change my feelings about paper charts. No longer were they something that electronics would replace solely because the electronics had more capability. Now they were something that should be replaced because the paper was becoming so out of date as to be more dangerous than the electronics. It's the chart image, not the media, that's important
In December, 2010, we removed all our paper charts from our pilothouse. True to form, while overnight and offshore at North Carolina in April at 11 pm, all of our built-in electronics blinked and went black. This is one of the melt-down scenarios we hear about. But it turned out that even with a difficult offshore slue passage to make in total darkness, it was trivial with our backup electronics which handled the real need perfectly. When we arrived on the Chesapeake, we removed all paper charts from the boat and have never missed them.
First, here are my specific reasons why I believe paper charts are more dangerous than electronic ones:
- The paper charts onboard are typically far out of date. While there are areas like Maine that haven't changed in centuries, even Maine changes harbors, buoys, and channels. Consider the amount of changes to the New Jersey coastline after superstorm Sandy. Yet how many cruisers have updated those paper charts? However, even if you do update your charts annually, you still miss the almost weekly updates from NOAA.
- I have not gone onto a single boat in the last 10 years where the captain had gone over each and every Local Notice to Mariners to update their paper charts between chart editions. Be honest - do you even receive any of the 17 districts of LNTM updates published every week in the US alone? The job is just too big.
- The electronics have gotten so reliable and so redundant that you no longer need a backup paper chart with out-of-date information. Most couples now have about 4 backup chartplotters, some that are even in your pocket on your phone.
Here was my major Ah-ha moment. I guess you could call it the final nail in my coffin for paper charts:
With a chart drawn on an electronic screen, I can do DR plotting just as easily as I can on paper. It's easy to drop waypoints and marks electronically, measure distances, and set angles. It's quite simple to use traditional chart tools on top of screens as well, especially iPads. OK, leave the dividers with the needle sharp points in the drawer. But divider measurements are built into all chartplotter products and apps today.
These DR calculations work on phones too along with the other electronic screens you have onboard. A grease pencil can even be used if you feel you have to draw something. It all still works. The chart on your electronic device is the same as your paper chart only it's probably newer. It's the chart image, not the media, that's important.
One of the meltdown scenarios given to justify paper charts is, what if the entire GPS satellite constellation goes down, won't you lose everything? But I haven't even mentioned GPS yet. This is all using the electronic displays just like paper charts, only they're more up-to-date. In other words, all of these electronic charts give the same capabilities as paper charts. You can do the same measurements, course planning, or anything else you can do on paper.
Most of the time the GPS satellite constellation has not been destroyed, hacked, or disrupted. Most of the time it works incredibly well. In that case, there is no paper chart in the world that will, by itself, show me where I am located. But every one of the electronic devices I have including all of my mobile phones will show me within 16 feet exactly where on Earth I am located. And it'll track my movement over current, georeferenced nautical charts. And it'll do it in any weather.
But there's more...
Did you know that some of the more advanced chartplotter software products perform automatic DR positioning when the GPS stops giving a fix? As you move you can update your current speed and course and it'll march you across the chart display without any need for making calculations in any weather. I'm sure there are other products but I've done it many times with Coastal Explorer. In fact, if the GPS goes out in CE, it'll give an alarm and go immediately into DR mode with your last known course and speed set. You update your movement parameters and it'll continue to update your boat icon's position about once per second. There is no way that I could manually do the math every minute. And I wouldn't want to do the manual math on paper in 5 foot oncoming seas.
Paper Chart - Valdez Bligh Reef
Electronic Nautical Chart of Radar Pilot 720º
There are other three other melt-down scenarios that people always bring up when I've suggested that paper charts no longer have a place in coastal cruising:
1. Everyone knows that the electronics eventually fails. What then?
Redundancy. Just like when my Raymarine chartplotter failed offshore, my iPad picked up the job in a few seconds. In a few minutes, a spare laptop was running the same route and even controlling the autopilot. If both of those failed, there were another few replacements ready to take over too. And that's not just my boat. It's easy and inexpensive to have that level of redundancy on all boats today.
2. All of this electronics requires power. So now you have a single point of failure.
No you don't. My boat's batteries can explode right now without affecting my phone or my wife's phone from operating perfectly. Both of our laptops will work. All 4 of our tablets will work. They're redundant because they have their own battery supplies.
And if you've followed any of the DragQueen anchor alarm discussions, we've suggested using extended battery backups for your mobile devices. We have three separate ones. Also don't forget that in a real emergency, with paper charts you'll be fixing your position a few times each hour at most. You can easily turn on an iPad for a minute, grab your position, and turn it off over and over again and it'll last for days on its regular charge.
Note too that there are a myriad of interesting charging solutions available today. There are self-contained solar panels that charge a USB device. There are winding devices that you pull over and over or rotate to generate USB power. These are all inexpensive and easy to keep on a boat allowing you to make sure all of your portable electronics are charged no matter where you are, even if you're in a liferaft.
If you get rid of your paper charts, you might need to have some of these charging solutions. The savings is about $750 a year for us. Again, we have three of them.
3. Lightning always comes up - that'll get you - it'll fry all of your electronics.
Redundancy is the key again. First, we never have all electronics plugged in. Some are put away. During a storm, we protect a few devices by placing them in the microwave which creates a pretty good cage of protection (don't turn on the microwave). During a storm I also like to put a phone in my pocket. I want to have it with me, to be honest, in case we end up in our liferaft. A press-and-seal baggie is all the water protection you'd need. Now if lightning strikes our boat in a way that fries the phone in my pocket, I've certainly gone into cardiac arrest and won't be around to worry about paper or electronics any longer.
Here's a more realistic scenario. Lightning strikes and blows out a few windows or rips off some bimini covers. Now the paper charts are in the wind and rain getting soaked if not blown into the sea. Think you could navigate in that condition by paper?
There are also 3 issues generally raised with the discussion of the demise of paper charts:
1. I get a much better overview on a paper chart. You just can't do that with electronic charts.
I seriously don't see that. I think zooming works pretty well with electronic charts. And I like drawing non-permanent lines on electronic charts for planning. Electronic charts allow me to zoom in with context so I can get details on a particular area quickly. Zoom back out and get the overview. That type of thing requires page turning or chart finding and is very cumbersome with paper. I think this overview argument comes from the feeling that some people like the physical feel of the paper media on the table or in their lap. I sort of understand that but I wonder if the other negative issues with paper charts are really worth that very hard to define quality.
But even more than that, electronics allow me to have every chart in the US and Caribbean on my phone. When we're onshore at a restaurant, we can discuss and plan where we'd like to go next using real nautical charts. When I'm dreaming about spending the summer in Grenada someday, I can do it while sitting in a waiting room. I've yet to see someone bring their paper charts into a restaurant or a waiting room. And yet, I do that type of thing all the time with my electronic charts.
2. You're somehow not a real captain/pilot unless you're using paper charts.
In 2011, the IHO removed the carriage requirement for ships to have paper charts. They can now have a second ECDIS chartplotter and remove their paper forever. I'm not even considering having a single backup in our own boat. Again, most of us have 4-5 backups.
This argument falls apart in some places like Canada. For some reason, Canada requires recreational boaters to carry paper charts. I would expect that to change in the near future but it's law today. It's also quite rare.
3. Yeah but XYZ ship went aground because they were following GPS and electronic charts. Or a corollary of this is that when you're using electronic charts, it shows you on land every now and then.
First, do you have any idea how many ships were destroyed before modern GPS navigation? Seriously, do you think there are more navigation failures today with electronic charts or yesteryear before GPS and electronic charts? Now it's pretty big news when there's a navigation disaster. Coming from a coastal town in Maine, I can tell you that the coastline is strewn with the remnants of sunken vessels that went aground on the rocks. Compared to the volume of boating done today, GPS and electronic charts have proven their safety.
Then, yes, I've been on the ICW in the middle of the channel and the electronic charts have shown me on land. But those electronic charts were digitized from the paper charts. If the paper could show you exactly where you were, it would show you on land too. It makes no difference whether you're using paper or electronics. You have to take position information in context with what your eyes actually see, right? Remember, it's the chart image, not the media, that's important.
Again, I know this is controversial. I know that there are some that will consider this as blasphemy. That's fine. We each have a right to our opinions and beliefs. You can still buy paper charts from a company who does print-on-demand or bundles them together in other ways. You still have that option, for now. I believe the NOAA announcement points to the future. The day is coming when paper charts will go the way of the chronometer, lead line, and sextant. I prefer to look forward and believe it will lead to safer boating much the same way that printed charts, depth sounders. and AIS improved safety in the past. I believe the prudent captain will realize that the same money that used to purchase paper charts can be put into a tablet device which will allow easy charts updates. After all, it's the chart image, not the media, that's important.