Tubsmacker brings up a good point in his story of a Solent passage. This passage is considered "piloting". Piloting involves the use, primarily, of visual aids to navigation, on land and a sea. The most commonly derived LOP is the visual bearing. The most important tool is the eye. Radar and soundings are also useful, if equipped. The use of GPS, Loran, celestial, or other offshore navigational devices in these situations is a dubious proposition. "Piloting" implies that there is a visual observation of position and the navigation of the vessel is conducted based upon it. The position may not even be plotted on the chart due to the exigencies of the situation. Radar is of such great use in such situations as it, more than any other navigational aid, mimicks the eyeball. As Tubsmacker intimates, a quick bearing and distance can be put down on the chart in a flash; plotting Lat/Long takes longer. Visual bearings, especially the use of ranges, are inherently better than any electronic aid. We're not as concerned with the fact that the lighthouse at Steppingstone is 0.1nm off in lat/long from it's charted position as we are with the fact that a million seamen have safely navigated it's waters by lining up on it and sailing a course leaving it a mile to port. If one wishes to glance at the GPS, in a piloting situation, for fun that's, of course, fine but there are usually more important navigational chores to be performed. A good fathometer will do far more to keep you off the hard stuff than a GPS in such situations. Tubsmacker's story illustrates two good points. A lot of sailors are not too proficient with the dividers, parallel rules, or triangles and their use with a paper chart. And secondly, they're in the chartroom when all the action is taking place between and beyond the anchors.(g)
After watching "The Hunt for Red October" perhaps one too many times, the novice navigator may be inclined to think that it is perfectly appropriate to navigate utilizing computer derived navigational information. As with all computer based systems-with a pencil and paper you can make an error but, to make a really big error you need a computer. The reason that piloting is done visually is that the human brain intuitively distills what the eye is observing without conscious thought. The GPS navigator pops out of the chartroom to report the vessel is setting down to port and the pilot replies, "yeah, I changed course for it a few minutes ago".
NOAA's assertion that electronic charts are the greatest advance since radar is rather bold, and probably hyperbole. Radio updates of Notice to Mariners is the primary advantage and it's not too big a chore to update those on a paper chart. As one who has had responsibility for maintaining a world wide chart catalog I can say that most corrections to the chart are not overly significant. Of course, one must go through all of the corrections, each and every time, to ascertain this fact. But, the point remains, it ain't like somebody up and moved Bishop Rock. For those reasons, I view radar and the fathometer as the two greatest electronic navigational tools yet invented. One could reasonably, if a bit haphazardly, circle the globe and various ports without charts if equipped with those two items. I am not advocating that, but merely illustrating how those two devices produce the most valuable information the pilot needs.
The weakness to NOAA's claim, as well as the use of chartplotters, to the small boat sailor is that it removes the human element from the navigational process. If you employ the humble paper chart, and religiously correct it via the NTM, you are subconsciously memorizing the chart. Every correction that is made to the chart will have been processed by the navigator's mind. As example, you receive a new edition of your old harbor chart. Can you espy each of the changes between it and the old chart? Of course not. And you need to sit down and examine it to ensure that nothing of great importance has changed since you last transitted it's waters. The automatic update of an electronic chart makes it more likely that you will not notice that buoy #10 has been repositioned or eliminated, until you go to make your normal course alteration off of what you thought was buoy #10. The potential for losing power, regardless of size of vessel, ensures that paper charts will be with the prudent navigator for many, many years to come. It is facile to say that computers do not make mistakes, only humans do. Where the computer and the human interface is the possible source of error and all computer derived solutions henceforth will reflect that error, often without the knowledge of the human. "Radar assisted collisions" are not necessarily a thing of the past. Computer assisted groundings are a thing of the present. In both cases, were the vessels not equipped with either device the navigator would have operated the vessel in a much different manner, the manner erring on the side of safety.
All navigational devices have their place, the great danger is in uneducated reliance upon them. The cruel irony is that the user does not know he or she is undeucated until disaster strikes. If you've got good water under the keel, and are a decent distance offshore, you may be lost, but you're pretty well safe. If you're motoring up a rock strewn channel in fog on GPS alone, you may know where you are, but you're probably not very safe.
For my fellow Luddites who utilize certain paper charts, and the same DR tracks on those charts, I have a suggestion. Scotch makes a tape that can be placed over your course plotted, usually two strips to either side works well. The tape is not removable but it can be written on nicely with a number 2 pencil and the pencil marks are erasible. It allows you to extend the life of the paper chart on that 1% of it that you are normally using. Most mates lay out their DR track in pencil, have it double checked, and then ink it in before applying the tape. The inexperienced mate decides that red ink would be the perfect color for his permanent DR track, only to discover that he can not see it under his red chart table lamp! And he has put the tape down before the realization.(g) Use black ink.
“Scientists are people who build the Brooklyn Bridge and then buy it.”
Wm. F. Buckley, Jr.