Sam Llewellyn

There is much to com­mend about pa­per charts, not least their suit­abil­ity for scrawl­ing notes upon and their rel­a­tive re­silience to soup spillages

Practical Boat Owner - - Contents -

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 Out-of-date charts are a crime against proper nav­i­ga­tion (though there is a cer­tain com­fort in the fact that Blondie Hasler, solo sail­ing pi­o­neer, is said to have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.

Un­of­fi­cial in­ter­est

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

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