The importance of paper charts as a backup
The importance of paper charts as a backup

"Discover the importance of paper charts as a backup for electronic navigation tools and ensure you're prepared for any situation while sailing."

The Importance of Paper Charts as a Backup

In the age of digital technology, it’s easy to become reliant on electronic devices for navigation. However, when it comes to sailing, it’s crucial to have a backup plan in case of equipment failure or other unforeseen circumstances. In this article, we’ll discuss the importance of paper charts as a backup, how to use them effectively, and tips for maintaining and storing them on your boat.

Table of Contents

Why Paper Charts are Essential

While electronic chartplotters and GPS devices have become the go-to tools for modern sailors, there are several reasons why paper charts should still be part of your navigation toolkit:

  1. Reliability: Electronic devices can fail due to battery issues, software glitches, or damage from water and humidity. Paper charts, on the other hand, are not susceptible to these issues and can be a reliable backup when technology fails.

  2. Safety: In the event of an emergency, such as a power outage or loss of GPS signal, having paper charts on hand can be a lifesaver. They allow you to continue navigating and make informed decisions about your course, even when electronic systems are down.

  3. Legal Requirements: In some countries and regions, it is a legal requirement for vessels to carry paper charts. Failure to do so can result in fines or other penalties.

  4. Education and Skill Development: Learning to read and use paper charts is an essential skill for any sailor. It not only helps you become a more competent navigator but also deepens your understanding of the marine environment and the factors that influence your journey.

Types of Paper Charts

There are several types of paper charts available, each with its own purpose and level of detail. Some of the most common types include:

  1. Sailing Charts: These charts provide an overview of a large area, such as an entire coastline or ocean basin. They are useful for planning long passages and understanding the general layout of a region.

  2. Coastal Charts: These charts offer more detail than sailing charts and are designed for navigating along coastlines. They typically include information on harbors, anchorages, and coastal features, as well as depth contours and navigational aids.

  3. Harbor Charts: These charts focus on specific harbors and their approaches, providing detailed information on depths, channels, and navigational aids. They are essential for safely entering and exiting harbors.

  4. Small Craft Charts: These charts are designed specifically for small boats and include information on shallow areas, hazards, and other features that may not be relevant to larger vessels.

When selecting paper charts for your boat, it’s important to choose the appropriate scale and coverage for your intended sailing area. It’s also a good idea to have a mix of chart types on board, so you have the right level of detail for any situation.

How to Read a Paper Chart

Reading a paper chart may seem daunting at first, but with practice, you’ll become more comfortable and confident in your ability to interpret the information it provides. Here are some key elements to familiarize yourself with:

  1. Title Block: Located in the lower right corner of the chart, the title block provides important information about the chart, including its scale, edition date, and the agency responsible for its production.

  2. Compass Rose: This circular diagram shows the relationship between true north, magnetic north, and the chart’s orientation. It’s essential for plotting courses and determining bearings.

  3. Depth Contours: These lines connect points of equal depth and help you visualize the underwater topography. They are particularly important for avoiding shallow areas and navigating in poor visibility.

  4. Navigational Aids: Symbols and abbreviations on the chart represent various navigational aids, such as buoys, beacons, and lighthouses. Familiarize yourself with these symbols and their meanings to ensure safe navigation.

  5. Latitude and Longitude: The grid lines on the chart represent lines of latitude (running east-west) and longitude (running north-south). These coordinates are essential for determining your position and plotting your course.

Plotting Your Course

Once you’re comfortable reading a paper chart, you can use it to plot your course and navigate your boat. Here are some basic steps to follow:

  1. Determine Your Starting Point: Using your current latitude and longitude, locate your starting point on the chart.

  2. Choose Your Destination: Identify your desired destination on the chart, taking note of any hazards or obstacles along the way.

  3. Measure the Distance: Using a pair of dividers or a ruler, measure the distance between your starting point and destination. Be sure to account for any course changes or detours.

  4. Determine Your Bearing: Using the compass rose, determine the true bearing from your starting point to your destination. Remember to account for magnetic variation when converting this to a magnetic bearing for use with your compass.

  5. Plot Your Course: Draw a line on the chart representing your intended course, and mark any waypoints or course changes along the way.

  6. Monitor Your Progress: As you sail, regularly update your position on the chart using GPS coordinates or visual bearings. This will help you stay on course and make any necessary adjustments.

Maintaining and Storing Paper Charts

Proper care and storage of your paper charts are essential to ensure their longevity and usability. Here are some tips for keeping your charts in good condition:

  1. Keep Charts Dry: Moisture can cause charts to become illegible or deteriorate over time. Store your charts in a waterproof chart case or plastic sleeve to protect them from water damage.

  2. Avoid Direct Sunlight: Prolonged exposure to sunlight can cause charts to fade and become difficult to read. Store your charts in a cool, shaded area when not in use.

  3. Handle with Care: Be gentle when folding and unfolding your charts, as repeated creasing can cause them to tear or wear out. Use a soft pencil for marking your charts, as ink can bleed through or become permanent.

  4. Update Your Charts: Regularly check for updates and corrections to your charts, as new information becomes available. This will help ensure that you’re navigating with the most accurate and up-to-date information.


While electronic navigation tools have undoubtedly made sailing more accessible and convenient, it’s essential not to overlook the importance of paper charts as a backup. By learning to read and use paper charts effectively, you’ll not only become a more skilled and confident navigator but also ensure that you’re prepared for any situation that may arise on the water. So, invest in a good set of paper charts, practice your chart-reading skills, and enjoy the peace of mind that comes from knowing you’re ready for anything.