RYA electronic chart training has missed the boat

The near-universal shift by small boat sailors from paper to electronic charts has left the Royal Yachting Association’s training courses floundering in recent years.

That was underlined when Admiralty, owned by the UK Hydrographic Office and one of the world’s gold standard official chart brands, said in July that it will stop selling paper charts altogether by the end of 2026.

The RYA’s response was that it would “continue to teach both traditional and electronic navigational techniques through its range of courses, although over time it is right to expect the weight of emphasis to shift towards more digitally based techniques.”

I’m afraid that’s a bit late. Implying that the shift is in the future is wrong. It has already happened and it’s been obvious for years which way the wind has been blowing.

The Golden Globe race is a trial of old skills, and its ban on satellite navigation makes it stand out – a living museum of navigation

The first signs of the shift to electronics actually arrived many years ago when ships were first allowed to abandon paper, and worldwide sales of paper charts soon started to plummet.

But in the small boat world, the RYA reaction until recently was to make excuses about why it could not start systematically training candidates on day skipper and yachtmaster courses in the use of electronic charts. People were given some instruction and tips about safe use of electronic charts but were basically left to pick up for themselves how to operate a real chartplotter.

It was only in January this year that the RYA announced it was hiring a new training manager to tackle these issues after a two year gap in filling the position, and results are still awaited.

You only need to read the RYA’s training publications and syllabuses to see that this modernisation should have started a long time ago. Then compare with a book such as Stress Free Navigation by Duncan Wells (Adlard Coles), which teaches the old methods alongside the new, and you can see how the RYA has missed out.

This month the RYA strategic report said that it had “begun on modernising” shorebased navigation courses, and the review would run into 2023. Details would begin to roll out to instructors and training centres later this year. The word ‘begun’ at this stage of the electronic revolution on boats rather stands out.

The strongest argument the RYA used over the years for not upgrading training in electronic charts was that there was no uniformity among leisure chartplotter systems, so it was impossible to teach how to use them in a coherent way. That now seems to reveal a lack of determination, ingenuity and ambition.

Another rather legalistic argument was that leisure charts are not currently approved for navigation by maritime authorities (see the warnings when you open your charts). But again, things have moved on: everyone does use them, and that includes many fishing boats and small commercial craft. The ‘not for navigation’ warning is a problem that needs solving by higher leisure chart production standards, and it will be in the next few years.

Another thought I heard expressed at the top of the RYA was that if you encourage electronic navigation by bringing it to the forefront of training you’d undermine the all-important teaching of traditional navigation. In the extreme, you’d end up with people who do not have a clue what to do if their electronics fails, and – horror of horrors – they might even be doing it all on a phone app.

But as a Royal Institute of Navigation survey three years ago found, most leisure sailors by then already relied mainly on electronic charts, paper had become largely a backup, and few even bothered to correct their paper charts any more, because electronic charts can be updated frequently and reliably.

That was a survey of experienced members (I remember filling it in). I would guess that the younger and less experienced were by then automatically gravitating to apps, the internet and electronic navigation because that’s how most people under 40 live their lives. If you take up sailing, where’s the first place you search for advice? Maybe U-tube? You’d find plenty of material about modern navigation methods and you would already be entirely accustomed to relying on electronics.

Before going any further, I have to say I am strongly in favour of learning traditional methods alongside electronic navigation, for a variety of good reasons which I’ve set out in the new updated edition of Pass Your Day Skipper (out in the New Year from Adlard Coles).

But given the ease and cheapness with which multiple independently powered back up systems can be brought on board (think laptops, tablets and mobile phones) the much-repeated threat that you must learn the old methods or you’d be lost if your batteries failed is now rather lame. The stronger case for learning both methods is much less dramatic: they are complementary, and each helps to better understand and use the other safely.

A modernised chart table on an old boat – ours. Two raster charts are being tested on tablets (Imray and VMH’s UKHO charts). The ancient Garmin GPS is still working and is connected to the DSC radio. The main chartplotter uses C-Map vector charts and is installed in front of the wheel in the cockpit.

There will be more to say on the consequences of Admiralty’s abandonment of paper charts in subsequent posts.