Until Paul and I made landfall in Portugal after our last transatlantic passage I never fully appreciated how lucky we are as modern sailors to have access to a virtually unlimited supply of reliable charts. (See Portugal's Algarve Coast
). After days at sea, we finally dropped the hook at Sagres, where high on the cliffs above us was the historic site of Prince Henry's School of Navigation, the catalyst for the phenomenal era of Portuguese exploration. It was here in the 15th century that Prince Henry gathered the world's best navigators and cartographers to develop new skills and techniques for extended voyaging on the high seas. To gather charts for his expeditions, Henry sent men by boat and horseback to search for them from other countries. He wasn't even sure what existed. Communal knowledge was limited, there were no telephones, no websites, no hydrographic societies with catalogs and archives, and no published guides. He had to ask around! (Or, as the case turned out, explore and make his own. But he was a smart guy. Why re-invent the wheel, if it's already out there? He asked first, and then sailed.)
So whenever I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed by a pre-cruise checklist and the thought of all that needs to be done, I think of Prince Henry and thank my lucky stars I can just visit my local chart agent or get on the Internet and with relative ease find the charts I need. Actually, researching and purchasing charts is one of the pre-cruise tasks that Paul and I really look forward to. Charts are the stuff of dreams, fire for the imagination, and the tickets to freedom. Studying them diminishes our fears and fills our minds with visions of the new places we're about to explore.
But whimsy aside, a set of good up-to-date charts is probably the most valuable piece of safety gear you can carry on a cruise. There is no cheaper insurance. Surprised? Without charts, you have no detailed information of what lies ahead and are, making you basically an accident about to happen. With a good set of charts (provided you've given them some study before setting out and actually use them for navigating en route), your chances of hitting submerged obstacles, going aground on shoals or reefs, being caught by bad weather with no safe haven to run to, or getting lost on a foreign shore, etc., are greatly reduced. It is amazing how often we meet fellow cruisers who've spent thousands of dollars on a lovely boat and top-of-the-line safety equipment, but cheap-out on charts.
Sure, charts are expensive. An extended cruise down the Eastern Seaboard to the Caribbean can cost you $600 to $1,000 in charts. But think of the protection, peace of mind, not to mention fun, that those charts will provide for you and your crew compared to the cost and use you'll get from your life raft or EPIRB (without them!). Few of us would spare the cost of a life raft or EPIRB if doing extended cruising offshore, so doesn't it make sense to budget for and carry an extensive set of good, up-to-date charts?
Research At least six months (usually more) before we plan to set sail for a long-term cruise, Paul and I begin the chart-purchasing process by buying a planning chart or two. These are small-scale charts. (Things look small because they cover a huge area.) For example, when we were planning our current cruise to countries bordering the Mediterranean, our first purchase was two charts that together covered the entire Mediterranean Sea. To help us get the geography in our minds, we stuck them up at home so they were readily in view. In fact, Paul ended up building a coffee table the size of a standard chart with a glass top, for our living room. We just slipped in a chart and voilà, whenever we sat down we could study it. When guests were over we could show them where we were planning to go and their questions often made us aware of things we were overlooking or places we should research further. Another good place to stick a chart is over your desk at work (if possible), or at home. This way you'll keep your dream in front of you, so you are more likely to achieve it, and when you do, boy do you know that chart and where you're going! Being familiar with your charts ahead of time can greatly enhance your safety and enjoyment on a cruise.
Our research also involves a lot of reading and web-surfing to get recommendations for charts, cruising guides, and routes for the area we're planning to cruise. We're members of the World Cruising Club in Toronto where there are monthly speakers giving in-depth seminars on various cruising destinations—a great way to get familiar with the best charts to use and what to see. You meet nice people and get really good personal tips that you wouldn't from just a chart or book. Yacht clubs and other associations provide the same opportunities. Check your area, you may be surprised by what's offered. The Seven Seas Cruising Association based in Fort Lauderdale publishes bulletins giving up-to-date recommendations from cruisers currently in various destinations around the world and we always consult them before any voyage.
With this research behiond us we then begin purchasing additional resource books such as recommended cruising guides, pilot atlases (for trends in seasonal wind strength and direction), and route-planning guides. When we finally decide on specific destinations, we purchase mid-scale charts showing more limited areas and coast lines, like the coast from Cape May to Cape Hatteras or a chart of the all the Balearic Islands of Spain. It's important that these charts show navigational aids for approaches such as buoys for entering and leaving harbors in close detail. Then we get to the large-scale charts with close-up views showing details of harbors and inlets. Ordering your charts several months ahead of your planned departure is wise in case certain ones aren't immediately available. Give yourself a good lead time.
The most expensive way to purchase charts is to buy individual government charts for your whole trip such as US DMA charts, Canadian CHS charts, or the most expensive of all, UK Admiralty charts. (Admiralty charts are sold with updates applied at the time of purchase, which adds to their expense and value.)
For savings and convenience, we generally buy individual small scale charts (planning charts), and, if available, an approved chart kit with a selection of mid and large-scale charts for a certain area, such as the Bahamas. We say "approved" because not all chart kits are good reproductions and this can be dangerous. Photocopying charts is also dangerous (and illegal in some countries) due to the distortion that can result.
We find chart kits convenient because they store so nicely on board compared to loads of individual charts. We have a few heavy plastic covers for the kits so we can use them out in the cockpit and not worry about salt spray. However, we do all our plotting in Two-Step's tiny nav center.
We also purchase individual large-scale charts for key harbors that would be safe havens in bad weather. (These give close-up views, so things look big.) Details and accuracy are important here. However, if we find excellent cruise guides such as the RCC guides that we're using in the Med, which contain detailed harbor charts for virtually every port we use those. It's important to check publishing dates on guides. If they are too out of date, we'll still buy new charts of key harbors or channels.
Where to Buy Charts Charts and related cruising guides are available from official chart agents around the world and through the internet. The Internet has become an excellent resource for chart purchasing since you can research and purchase through websites wherever you happen to be in the world as long as you can get Internet access. This reduces initial cost since you can buy en route. And let's face it, plans do change once you're out there. It also saves weight since you only carry a few sets of charts at a time. Whenever we can, we like to buy ahead. This way we have the charts and are familiar with them. Remember, shipping to foreign countries is not always easy, especially if you have no permanent address. We have bought charts en route from excellent chart agents and second-hand from cruisers heading in the other direction. Generally, second-hand charts are not great because they're usually out-of-date, but sometimes the personal notes people have added are invaluable.
We have dealt with the same chart agent in Toronto for 15 years. The staff there is part of our safe boating team now. They have grown with us and through their recommendations they've helped provide the special experiences that cruising has brought to us. Because they know us and our interests, they look out for books, charts, and kits that they feel would be especially helpful to us. You can't calculate the value of that.
Remember that charts are tools for your safety while cruising, so use them to their fullest potential! (And besides, plotting is fun.) It pays to leave lots of time to plan and purchase a set of reliable charts. Be safe, and feed your dream.