Career Advice

Paper vs. Electronic Charts When off the Beaten Path

15 July 2020By Kate Lardy
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Written by

Kate Lardy

Based in Fort Lauderdale, freelance writer Kate Lardy got her start in the yachting industry working as crew. She spent five years cruising the Bahamas, Caribbean, New England, and Central America, then segued that experience into a career in marine journalism, which has included stints as editor of Dockwalk and ShowBoats International.

The 70-meter M/Y On Course was on the trip of a lifetime in the South Pacific. The Milk Run had grown stale and the owner was itching to push the limits of his superyacht’s capabilities and explore the far corners of the globe. The yacht had recently arrived in the Solomon Islands, and with guests on board, they spent their days searching out the most pristine, out-of-the-way dive sites for the scuba-crazy owner.

Conditions had been perfect when they started out in the morning with the sun behind them lighting the way, but as they neared their destination that afternoon, storm clouds gathered and let loose a downpour, reducing visibility to near zero. On the paperless bridge, the watch crew dutifully stayed glued to their screens as the yacht cautiously picked its way through the reef. But as their ENC showed them safely ensconced in an 11-meter channel, the yacht suddenly shuddered and groaned as the hull painfully scraped bottom...

Unfortunately, charts are not infallible. Particularly the farther you get from the well-beaten shipping lanes, the more likely it is that hydrographic data may not be wide ranging or up to date. And in some areas, it makes a difference whether a vessel is using digital or paper charts.

“It’s all based around commerce. As much as [hydrographic offices] would have you believe it’s not just about money-making, when you look at the coverage, the best coverage in ENCs (official electronic navigational charts) follows the major trade routes,” says Chris Warde, head of the superyacht division for OneOcean (a recent merger of ChartCo and Marine Press), which provides digital and paper navigational solutions for nearly 20,000 vessels.

Unfortunately, charts are not infallible. Particularly the farther you get from the well-beaten shipping lanes, the more likely it is that hydrographic data may not be wide ranging or up to date.

Outside of a few pockets, the common yachting cruising grounds are well covered by official ENCs, Warde explains. “But when you get into [far-flung places], the official electronic chart data starts to become a little less well covered,” he says, noting that it’s particularly an issue in the high latitudes, both north and south. For example, “Go down to Chile and the approaches into Antarctica, there are locally produced official paper charts; but that data doesn’t get included in electronic charts,” he says. It comes down to market demand. “Somebody has to convert that data into electronic data; they have to gauge whether there is a sufficient market that will purchase those cells to make it worthwhile.”

Whether charts are digital or paper, sometimes the issue lies with the hydrographic data. In its 2019 Casualty Summary Report, the Maritime Authority of the Cayman Islands (MACI) reported a grounding due to an uncharted object. Interestingly, the chart the crew was using was up to date and it was properly corrected, but the hydrographic data upon which it was based was from a lead-line survey conducted from 1846. MACI’s advice? Be cautious and be aware that away from commercial shipping routes, hydrographic data may not be comprehensive.

This is something that Capt. Christopher Walsh of 68-meter M/Y Archimedesis used to, as his adventurous program takes him on some of the oceans’ least-cruised routes. As he advises in the “Solo Superyachting” feature (page 15), you have to go slow and navigate by eye, and when necessary send the small boat ahead to chart for you. He also recommends using drones and satellite imagery like Google Earth.

Closer to home for most yachts, there are also several popular yachting spots where the official ENC data is lacking in detail, notably The Bahamas, Greece, and Turkey. And it’s in these areas that paperless yachts have to be careful that their navigational charts and practices are in compliance with flag state and international regulations.

Speaking about The Bahamas, which he describes as “woefully serviced under official ENCs,” Warde says that as a result of the poor data, a lot of yachts will look to leisure cartography — the same charts a 40-foot cruiser would carry. “Because the level of detail [on these leisure charts] in The Bahamas is so much better than the official ENCs, you have forty-, fifty-, sixty-meter superyachts using that same leisure-based cartography, which is unofficial,” he says. “This is probably the biggest area of both misconception, but also of yachting opening itself up to potential problems. For paperless vessels, the perception is that they can use an unofficial chart where the official chart is not giving enough detail, that that would be okay. And it isn’t okay.”

If there is an incident, an insurance claim may be invalidated for not using the proper charts, he explains. Or if a yacht is subjected to a flag state or port state inspection, the authorities are not interested in unofficial charts.

“Paper vessels, in a way, have it easier because there is absolutely no question that all of their passage planning and all of their navigational information comes through the paper chart. As long as they are using an official paper chart — which in yachting is prevalent — then any kind of digital navigation they are using is just backup. They’re going to be squeaky clean and not have any issues should they come across any problems,” Warde says.

But for paperless yachts, in places where the official ENC is lacking in detail, you cannot use an unofficial electronic chart system, he explains. You have to use raster charts like ARCS (basically digitized paper charts) or go back to paper coverage for the area, even if the yacht is signed off by flag as a paperless vessel.

This column is taken from the July 2020 issue of Dockwalk.

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