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Using a Nautical Chart

In these days of built-in, onboard GPS systems it’s easy to lull ourselves into a false sense of security that we’ll always seemDoor County Nautical Chartto know where we are on the water. Even our phones have mapping features on them. But ask anyone who has had their 12-volt power fail, and they’ll tell you that even on a body of water you know like the back of your hand, your best friend can be a good, up-to-date nautical chart.

While day trippers may choose to stay close to home or frequent the same cove or sandbar, you never know when you’ll need to make a fuel run or follow another boater to a new restaurant, only to find you’re turned around and nothing looks familiar on the way home. So it’s a good idea to buy a paper (or, even better, laminated) chart and store it someplace easy to find.

Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your nautical chart:

Do a little homework. Study up to get your bearings before you ever leave the house. Once you leave that boat ramp or dock, you’ll be surprised how quickly false coves and trap channels can get you turned around. That’s particularly true if the water levels have been changing since last season.

Know your terms and scale. Reading a chart is like reading a map, but it’s not exactly like reading a map. Terms like soundings (depth readings), channel boundaries (main boating traffic route), sea marks (just like landmarks), and tidal races (strong currents associated with tide changes). Since, like land maps, nautical charts come in many different scales, make sure you have a good understanding of what ratio is used.

Determine major landmarks. You can get out of many jams by simply knowing your major landmarks like bridges, dams, marinas and inlets. You’ll be tired and distracted after a full day of sun and fun, so check your instincts against these key land features. If you remember that Rusty’s Bait & Tackle should be on your left returning to the dock, you’ll have one less thing to worry about.

Check for hazards. This is one of the great reasons to buy a new chart every season. Note new submerged hazards, channel marker locations, bridge clearances, power lines and anything else that you may be cruising past on the way to your destination. Dredging and other maintenance-related obstructions should also be noted.

Share the knowledge. Get your crew, especially children, involved with helping you plot your course and orienting themselves with the surroundings. This will help build their confidence on the water and teach them valuable boating skills. Plus, they’ll be ready and able to assist in case of an emergency.

Keep it current. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) now provides updated nautical charts you can print from your home computer. While these won’t be as user-friendly as your typical dock-store laminated chart, it will be a good source for anything that’s changed since that chart was printed. This is particularly important if you’re venturing into a new area. Just go to for more information.

Print | posted on Wednesday, December 28, 2011 4:39 PM