There is much to commend about paper charts, not least their suitability for scrawling notes upon and their relative resilience to soup spillages
There is a chest in the corner of the room. It is perhaps four feet by three, by two feet high, and it has half a dozen flat drawers. These drawers are full of charts. They stretch from the North Cape to the Nile Delta. A friend who works in the City of London found the chest and its contents about 10 years ago in a skip behind the office of a shipping company. He could not believe it was being thrown away. ‘Yeah,’ said the shipping person he asked. ‘We’ve gone electronic.’ So we gave it a home.
I know, I know. Out-of-date charts are a crime against proper navigation (though there is a certain comfort in the fact that Blondie Hasler, solo sailing pioneer, is said to have regarded the updating of charts as a tedious waste of time). But there is something about paper charts. Surveying boats have been rowed across bays. Sextant angles vertical and horizontal have been taken. Soundings have been made. And after all that has been done, someone has drawn a two-dimensional picture based on the results, and we in our boats regularly stake our lives on its accuracy.
Early charts were pretty much a waste of time unless you had a navigation strategy that could cope with Jerusalem being in the centre of the world and most of northern Europe, including the British Isles, marked whimsically if at all. Slightly later models, like the ones shown in John Blake’s excellent The Sea Chart (Conway, £22.50), are more workmanlike objects – knocked up by early cartographers driven by the financial imperative of helping the medieval traders of Venice and Genoa sail from cargo to cargo. They are largely portolans, criss-crossed with rhumb lines emanating from wind roses. Any blank spaces may bear illustrations of ferocious sea monsters – handy for those wishing to deter foreign fishermen from intruding on their grounds. As a last resort, the early cartographer could always fall back on the ‘here be dragons’ gambit, secure in the knowledge that mariners would be frightened enough not to go near the place, and would therefore be spared the inconvenience of bumping into any rocks it might contain.
During the 18th and 19th centuries the British Navy, seeking directions round the Empire, did plenty of good work, surveying just about every pebble between Antarctica and Baffin Island. The old ways hung on for a while; early charts of the Atlantic were made less reliable by the marking of vigias – places unreliably reported, marked by cartographers just in case – like the entirely mythical Hy Brasil and the only slightly less mythical Thule. Some vigias did not disappear from charts until the mid-19th century, and have been known to reappear suddenly after a busy night on the Islay distillery tour.
The charts in my chest have an unofficial interest, too. The lines of courses to steer and tidal vectors have been more or less rubbed out, but the water-stained paper of the ones we used for open-boat cruising still bears the pencil scrawls that did duty as a log. Rain, they say. Still raining. Whale. Henry lost propeller here, with an arrow pointing at a rock off the northern tip of Gigha. Drawing of Henry looking for his propeller in the dark, and not finding it. HW 0530.
Even now, in a boat with a cabin, on quite a lot of coastal passages a scrawl on a chart is about as close as we get to a log. The usual remarks about weather and tide times and courses are easy to read. So, on a paper chart, is what you had for lunch, in the form of (to take one example from thousands) that blob of tomato soup halfway between Jura and Colonsay.
Wait a minute, I hear you cry. What about Navionics, ya Luddite? The DSC connected to the GPS and the GPS connected to the Autohelm and the Autohelm connected to the skipper’s brain and we hear the word of the Lord. Well, it is hard to scrawl notes on the screen of a plotter, and if you spill soup into it it merely blows up. All right, you can take a photograph and share it. But there is enough misery in this world without yet another snap of grey sea and grey sky. And most of that misery can be dispelled by gazing down the long vistas of history as well as geography supplied by the chest in the corner of the room.
A portolan chart of the Mediterranean