Paper-free chart tables

The idea of a paperless chart table is usually dismissed out of hand, and the very suggestion makes some old hands fume. But if a 100,000 ton bulk carrier can now be paperless, then it is hard to maintain that it will always be a mad idea for experienced yacht owners.

For a navigator on a yacht as much as on a ship, the advantages of knowing instantly where you are on a chart, and where you are going, are too obvious to dwell on. An old-time merchant navy officer would have spent many hours in junior officer days correcting paper charts. Tony, the retired master mariner with whom we share our boat, had to do exactly that in his early days. Electronics were therefore the answer to a mariner’s prayer: hundreds, indeed thousands, of charts on one machine, with corrections of the whole portfolio available in one simple operation over the internet. Yet even recently there have been published accounts of yacht cruises round Britain urging people to buy full portfolios of paper charts.

For our own round Britain cruising (the second time in the last six years), £3000 would buy fewer than 130 new UKHO charts, compared with the 850 which Memory Map says it incorporates in its UK and Ireland package. Even with a limited paper edition, we would never have a hope of keeping them all up to date unless we devoted weeks in the winter to correcting. If we bought second hand, even if we could find them all, the correction effort would be much greater.  

In contrast, the Memory Map charts on the laptop cost only £50 for the UK 2013 edition, which includes every chart for the British Isles.  Our c-Map charts for NW Europe, including the whole of the British Isles, cost £180 new and just over £100 a time to update, which can be done several times a year, rather more frequently than most sailors I know get round to updating far smaller paper chart portfolios in practice. Navionics on the iPhone (and shortly on a tablet) is even cheaper, and updates automatically.

The result is that for both round Britain cruises we have bought mainly small scale Imray paper charts and very few large scale UKHO ones. We do not yet rely primarily on electronic charts, because we do not have robust enough electrical and electronic backup systems; but in practice, partly for budget and partly because of the ease of correction, we’ve tipped the balance quite a long way away from reliance on paper. Judging by conversations with other leisure sailors, that is rapidly becoming the norm.

So what exactly is it that makes it safe for a modern 100,000 ton ship to go entirely electronic, when yachts are faced with warnings on their chart plotters and electronic charts that they should not be used for primary navigation? The C-Map licence, for example, says “Only up to date official government charts and notices to mariners contain all information needed for the safety of navigation…..Unless otherwise specified by national maritime authorities, the data licensed hereunder is inadequate as a primary means of navigation, and should be used only as a supplement to official government charts and traditional navigation methods.”

The key official conditions for dispensing with paper charts in the commercial world are:

·  The ship must have an Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) approved and certified by its flag state, backed up by a second fully independent ECDIS system. For many ships, an ECDIS system is now mandatory, and it will soon be for all. (The “improved positional awareness”, as some professionals put it, far outweighs the risks of going electronic). Ships may back up an ECDIS with paper charts, but a second ECDIS system has the attraction of avoiding the confusion that can arise from trying to keep paper and electronic portfolios simultaneously up to date.

To go paperless, both systems must use  vector electronic charts, not raster electronic charts (which are basically facsimiles of paper charts); the vector charts must be government issued or authorised and reach a very high level of specification and be updated frequently. One of the many mandatory functions is to display chart quality information, an amplified version of the source data diagrams on UKHO charts. Charts sold with the “professional” label for smaller commercial craft and fishing boats do not meet this standard, and neither do leisure charts.

·Navigators must be trained to a high level in the use of the systems.

Superyachts may be able to afford all that today. But is it possible to get close to these strict conditions on a modest-sized cruising yacht?

Next article: ‘how to mimic big ships’

Round Britain 2012-13: Cowes, Whitby, Inverness, Oban

This is the story of the first year of our two-year round Britain cruise in Spring Fever, a retired racing boat on a mission to go slowly (like us). A previous round Britain in 2007-8 in an earlier boat, Pepper of Brixham, had left us hungry to see more of the beautiful West of Scotland, where we had time to spend only a month sailing.We decided to go anti-clockwise, up the East Coast and down the West, rather than the clockwise route we used last time, and to use the Caledonian Canal rather than Cape Wrath and the Orkneys, which we visited in 2008. The account of our passage back from Scotland down the West Coast of Ireland in 2013  was written as a daily blog (follow this link to see all the posts) but this first part of the cruise is a single account, a photo album with words.

A cheerful start - a Robin spends time with us off Beachy Head
A cheerful start – Robin off Beachy Head

We left Cowes on 11 April 2012 for what always seems a bit of a trudge to the Thames Estuary, though with the right timing there are about 11 hours of favourable tide on the way from Beachy Head to Ramsgate, which cheers things up. After leaving Brighton, for an hour or two we were much entertained by a stray Robin’s search for a safe haven on the boat. He eventually found such a good hiding place – it was a mystery where – that we didn’t see him again until he flew off while we were entering the Deben in Suffolk more than a day later. He had hitched a 130 mile ride.

Follow this link to read the the rest of the story of our cruise up the East Coast and through the Caledonian Canal.

Round Britain in Pepper 2007-8

Goodbye, Kehaar. In  2001 we decided we were spending too much money and time on the boat we had owned for ten years, and sold her. Wouldn’t it be much more sensible to charter other peoples’ boats in nice places, and get on with our lives the rest of the time without obsessing about equipment and cruises?

Pepper of Brixham
Pepper of Brixham

For several years it worked. Hello, Seychelles, Adriatic (several times), Greece and other destinations. However, William began to investigate the idea of buying a small boat and sailing round Britain in his gap year, so naturally I helped him narrow down the choice and began to visit boatyards with him to look at ideas, with a Contessa 26 the favourite. We looked at several.

It was the beginning of a slippery slope back to boat ownership. Will changed his plans and went off round the world using other means of transport; I kept on visiting boatyards, egged on by a small inside voice telling me that it would be good to have a healthy outdoors project in the run up to retirement, and sailing round Britain could fit the bill – my own sort of gap year. The upshot was that in 2005 we bought Pepper, a Verl 900, a 30 footer with an unusually large amount of room down below for a boat from 1978, and a surprisingly good turn of speed for her top-heavy looks.

She had a new engine and Furlex, and the hull had just been resprayed professionally, but otherwise she needed a big refit, which we spread over two years, until we had new rigging, electronics, sails, ground tackle, and a host of the other odds and ends that need renewing on every boat of this generation. The plan was to go slowly, fitting a round Britain cruise into other schedules by doing it in stages, exploring as we went, and finding places to leave Pepper whenever necessary, including a winter at Oban in Argyll.

Follow this link to read about the round Britain cruise in 2007   and this link to read about the second year from Oban to the Orkneys and back down the east coast.