The Necromancy, Artistry and Beauty of Traditional Paper Charts

The Necromancy, Artistry and Beauty of Traditional Paper Charts

—October 14, 2016

I have long been enamoured of nautical charts, by far my favorite navigational tool. And sure, I enjoy the convenience of navigating by GPS chart plotter, but there is no art or romance in it. A chart plotter is all push button and cursor with any resultant specific details available in whatever scale or format you desire. In this age of computerized instant gratification, the paper chart takes a bit of work, but you get to look and touch an artistic canvas, discern subtle details by your own eyes, and use the chart as a backdrop to mentally visualize the transit from point A to B.    

Give me a paper chart, compass, parallel rules, close approximation of the starting point and average speed, and I canChester Harbour guide a boat via dead reckoning (DR) to just about any point on a chart’s navigable waters, even in the face of a thick blanket of fog or shroud of night. To those unfamiliar with the art of traditional navigation methods it can seem like necromancy, and perhaps to some extent it is.

My friends were certainly amazed the first time I navigated a complete voyage by dead reckoning, taking them almost 40 nautical miles through thick fog via an unseen narrow channel and then over open ocean to meet up with another narrow channel at voyage’s end. It was wondrous enough that I got us to our destination without ever seeing land except at departure and arrival, but I was also able to successfully gain visual sight of all five sea buoys on the route. Mind you, I must confess to being lucky, or under Poseidon’s watch, because that navigation was just too perfect, and I’ve yet to make another DR voyage that perfectly on course.

Charts are magical. GPS chart plotters are just plastic viewing screens with a bunch of interior computer chips and a need for electricity. Charts might get inconveniently wet (or worse, blown overboard should you bring one topsides), but chart plotters can just quit working. My nine-year-old Raymarine chart plotter gave up the ghost the other day. A bit annoying, but no big deal cause I’ve always got the paper charts in reserve. I’m not so sure that such an event would be “no big deal” with the rest of the world’s recreational boating public.

My grandfather and stepfather, both of whom contributed to the evolution of my nautical skills, used to joke about the pandemonium on the water that would ensue should a GPS satellite or two go on the blink. That was back during the emergence of GPS chart plotters when most mariners—professional and recreational—still learned traditional navigation. Now it seems that few up-and-coming recreational mariners even bother with the traditional methods. Woe be unto them should a satellite, or even just their individual ship-borne GPS unit, give out on a cold, dark, stormy night.   

Cape Cod to Nova Scotia ChartBut enough of any such “doom and gloom” scenarios, as I was vying to speak of the “beauty” and “artistry” of nautical paper charts. And the subject matter of “nautical paper charts” only came to me earlier this week, when I opened a box containing a treasure trove of nautical charts.

They were my above-mentioned step-father’s charts—collected, I assume, over the past 60 years or so, and representing all of his voyages, both those actually travelled and those only dreamt of.

The former, covering the seas bounding Nova Scotia, Maine, Massachusetts, Belize, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Greece and Turkey, are obvious. I long heard his sea tales, and his handwriting lightly adorns these charts, giving me visual representation of his thought process as he navigated from each Point A to Point B.

The latter—Newfoundland, West Indies, Venezuela, Brazil, and quite a few places I have yet to identify—are notable for their lack of written adornment.

I can only assume that they are places he longed to navigate and explore. I see this art and want to navigate and explore these places, too. 

—Originally published by Slidemoor.

Hitting the Water With Old-School Virtual Reality

Hitting the Water With Old-School Virtual Reality

—April 14, 2016

It snowed over the weekend. Only about four inches, but enough to put a damper on the notion that we might have an early spring this year. The forecast for the coming week does not look promising as far as the boatyard doing much launching this week. Not that it really matters given that it’s the unholy tax filing month, and with my dual American-Canadian status I get double filing detail. Sigh….

Nevertheless, I’m itching to get on the water, anxious to feel the wind across my cheek as I hoist up the sails for the first time of the season. Alas, with no boat in the water, the inclement weather, work and taxes it looks like I will not be on the water until May. Oh well, guess I will need to scratch my sailing itch with a bit of virtual reality.

Yep, nothing like a good nautical book to tide me over while I contend with the symptoms of sailing withdrawal. I am not aware of any recent tales of nautical brilliance, but I love my selection of tried and true reads. And if you love a good nautical book as much as me, then I suggest you peruse my library and try out any one of these fantastic reads:

Godforsaken Sea: The True Story of a Race Through the World’s Most Dangerous Waters

Derek Lundy

This book tried to keep me up all night, but the sun came up before I finished it—oops, I guess it was an all-nighter! Fantastic read that details just about everything one needs to know about what it is like to participate in the Vendee Globe, the round-the-world, single-handed yacht race considered among the most gruelling competitions of all racing sports. If you want to get the sense of what it’s like to sail in the “Roaring 40s” this book is for you. And yes, it was so good that I have read it again during daylight hours.

Northern Lights

Desmond Holdridge

Good luck finding a copy of this book, as it’s been out of print for decades, though a limited edition of some hundred or so was published a few years ago on behalf of the widow of a member of the Cruising Club of America. Somehow a copy ended up in my hands, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that this true story began literally across the harbour from my dock. In short, a young man looking for a last youthful adventure prior to settling down, buys a 30-foot sloop from a local Nova Scotia boat builder, and, with two other adventurers, sets sail with the intention of reaching the top of Labrador. Beautifully written, the tale details the hazards of such a journey, along with the day-to-day difficulties of undertaking such a voyage with the rudimentary gear, supplies and limited nautical knowledge of the crew. Three disparate personalities trapped on such a small space in sometimes dire circumstances plays a role in the tale, too. This book totally needs to be re-published.

The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Man Against the Sea

Sebastian Junger

Yeah, yeah, you probably saw the movie starring George Clooney. The book, which provides a detailed analysis of a massive storm system and its effects on a small New England-based swordfish longliner, puts the movie to shame. It was a up-half-the-night, one-sitting read the first time I read it, and equally enjoyable the second time.

Sailing Alone Around the World

Joshua Slocum

If you love the idea of casting off from your dock to leave your life as you know it for an extended voyage of life at sea while you explore the world, then why haven’t you read this classic book about the first person to sail around the world solo?

To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World

Arthur Herman

If you love nautical history, along with history in general, this tome perfectly describes how Britain’s Royal Navy helped England become a world power and shape the world as we know it today. Another hard-to-put-down read, it pretty much consists of one-seafaring tale after another, combined with insights on how each of the localized incidents at sea reverberated across the oceans to affect the course of other interactions by man and governments.

As I’ve only read this one once, I think I just found my pick. However, my bookshelves are filled with dozens of other great seafaring reads. Guess I’m going to have to revisit this topic in a future blog. Until then, just grab any of the above books—trust me, you’ll feel like you’re on the water.

—Originally published April 13 by Slidemoor