Do You Still Need Paper Charts?

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Can we dispense with paper charts? And if so, what primary electronic navigation systems and what backups do we need so that we can cross oceans and approach shores in less than ideal weather in a safe and seamanlike way with only electronic charts?

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I would be, at this point, quite OK with going solely electronic (with appropriate backup gadgets, of course, for when the main one dies).

I would emphatically not be OK with relying purely on GPS and radar, without the skills to navigate on my own. “Selective availability” may be gone and the GPS satellites are probably out of reach of a Kessler cascade, but I spend enough time programming computers to know better than to trust them without a way to double-check for myself. There are times, as John mentioned, when the datum is screwed up and all the chartplotter can do is to display “well, this is what the paper chart would look like”.

Until affordable 4K displays show up, though, I’m keeping paper around. A 1080p display is nowhere close to good enough to replace a two-by-three foot spread when you need the big picture.

Oh, and a note to the Canadian Hydrographic Service: Get with the times, guys. If the Americans can make up-to-date S57 charts for all their major waterways available free online, I don’t see what excuse we Canadians have for charging a king’s ransom for update packs in crippled, DRM-locked formats.

Dick Stevenson

Dear John,
The question we come back to as defining whether we need paper charts is whether we think we could navigate into safe harbor if all electrics got disabled (lightening most likely). Our need for paper charts then becomes a safety question, rather than a cruising question. If all goes pear shaped electronically, we are then in safety/repair mode rather than cruising mode.*
For example: we are looking to be off the coast of Norway (non-stop we expect) where we have no paper charts at all for a couple hundred miles of coastline. I feel we need a small scale chart that would allow us to approach and enter larger harbors, fjords, rivers along that coast if we need to bail out and get safe (electronics out & storm coming). Once the small scale charts get me close in (off the harbor) then I would have guides books such as yours (w/ large scale harbor charts) to get me into the harbor where I could get sorted. Or a radio call to port authorities.
In cruising mode, after years of piloting and navigating almost exclusively by e-charts, we found an area where we felt having paper charts was close to necessary for cruising and that was the archipelagos of Finland and Sweden. One could certainly stay safe in the archipelagos with e-charts exclusively, but we found cruising was made much easier and far more enjoyable with their excellent and information- packed paper charts.
So, to answer, your question, we do not think e-charts are a 100% replacement for paper in our choices on Alchemy. Safety in admittedly rare but not unheard of scenarios underline a call for a bare bones paper repertoire of charts while certain cruising areas we have found, are greatly more appreciated for what they have to offer with paper charts.
My best,
Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
*Need is the operative word here, as we do want (and buy usually old) charts for most areas we visit and spend many pleasurable hours pouring over them. It is a little like books, read often on Kindle now, but we are near a library this winter and I find myself enjoying the tactile feel of paper books and putting off e-reading till the cruising season.

Dick Stevenson

Dear John,
Since the issue of chart plotting in the cockpit is brought up so prominently in this article stream, I will respond here lest everyone reading believes that navigating from the cockpit is the last word.
First, I agree that doing all charting from the cockpit is likely the safest, certainly the most efficient and is most likely to preserve situational awareness.
My caveats include:
I see this as another BBB (big boat bias). The bigger the boat, the more likely having navigation in the cockpit can be made to work. On 40 footers, charting with the larger screens you are espousing becomes a real estate issue as well as a visibility forward through the dodger windows issue. Paper charts would usually only be considered able to be worked on top of the companionway slide: feasible, because we have done it, but not easy nor convenient.
I would also challenge your description of the trials of a navigator using a laptop at the nav station (except possibly for single-handers, but even there I am doubtful). When things get complicated (or even when we get near something hard as you put it), Ginger is most likely at the nav station on the computer/chart plotter and I am on the helm. No one is jumping around or demented. She is feeding me relevant data and I am asking her questions while I maintain situational awareness of the boat and surroundings. She has her own situational awareness and they work well together in a synergistic fashion.*
It sounds like near-shore is primarily where you are making the case for cockpit navigation. This is where we are operating with 2 people available when needed and a single-hander may have the challenges you describe.
Offshore, where we are more likely to be on watch alone, having access to the laptop/chart plotter is far less important (when near something hard, both of us are active usually) and it is usually off to save power. We care where we are every hour or 2 when we log position and even then we rarely turn on the laptop. Most important are the AIS and the radar, both of which have displays in the cockpit.
Finally, we have navigated in this fashion (laptop below) for 12+ years now and, while sometimes finding it a bit inconvenient, I can’t think of a time where I deemed it unsafe.**
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

*Once for a long forgotten reason, we switched positions mid-way through a challenging manoeuver. Both of us took a dangerously long time to orient (establish situational awareness), became quite scarily unsettled, and we learned a valuable lesson.
** Far more dangerous, from my observation, is the modern tendency to install big complicated chart plotters at the helm. I suspect this is not what you meant by having nav ability in the cockpit, but I would want to challenge this seemingly innovative, reasonable and efficient (at first blush) and very seductive innovation. It is way too easy get lost in electronic manipulation, and then loose situational awareness. This task, that should never be the province of the helmsperson. An automobile equivalent is manipulating a cell phone by hand during driving: done all the time, but not good judgment.

David J VENNING (syIDA MAY) down-under

Much has been written on this subject and it will continue to provide a lively topic for discussion amongst the crusing fraternity for years to come.
I recently did a 1300nm delivery of a new 36′ yacht from Queensland to Melbourne. This vessel had a Simrad chart-plotter mounted on the compass(steering-wheel) binnacle and an auto-helm facility. The owner was on board for the duration but very soon declared that his “next” yacht would have a “spokeless” steering wheel. Yes, Dick… you are right it really is a question of suitability for the space available…. I prefer to have a back-up chart(or i-pad) readily to hand in the cockpit … but independent of the binnacle.



Well reasoned as usual. In addition one must caveat even paper charts. We have encountered three major, as in potentially boat totalling, errors on paper charts in the last three years. At first we blamed the electronic charts. Then we discovered they were perfect representations of the paper charts. Research revealed the incorrect paper charts were based on engineering drawings provided by a engineering firm or municipality — not on a survey. Apparently the wrong drawings. Two bridges and one jetty were as much as 300m out of position.

The bureaucratic response was to poor mouth.

Caveat navigae in all cases.


Yes to “navigate on deck,” and we now have a way to bring the below deck data topsides. We recently discovered a paired app that runs on our nav station laptop and an android tablet — making the tablet a remote display AND providing touch screen control of the laptop. Not only can we access anything on the laptop, with a webcam installed, we can see anything in the nav station (or anywhere the camera can see). It works through our wireless router. Used this way, the app is free. There is a license fee for being able to control the laptop from anywhere on the WWW.


John, I have since gone to a tablet after the experiment with my phone. Chris

paul shard

Hi John,

I agree with your post but question the last point about electronic chart use when the datum is out of whack. I agree the “cute little boat” is in the wrong place – but I think this is a user problem, not a problem with electronic charts. Even in relatively well travelled areas we have seen the chart datums off. I think the real point here is that everyone who uses an electronic charting system must be aware that the datum could be off until they have been in the area and checked it. Too many sailors we meet nowadays are not using the plotter correctly and assume they can zoom right in and will have the perfect picture of their environment.

Even in the remote areas where the chart datum is off we still find the electronic chart very useful. It shows a nice zoomed in chart, all details soundings etc and is likely to be more up to date than whichever paper chart we have for the area. It will also be more detailed since we rarely have paper charts for the most detailed levels. It is also nicely waterproof and up on deck.

Finally I can overlay our radar on to the chart and in many cases this will give me a warning if the datum is off. The radar gives us a fix by showing the nearly coastal features where they are in relation to our boat. If they are not lining up with the chart then the datum is likely to be off.

Best regards


Erik de Jong

Hi John,
I’m actually relieved to read this I must say John. You made me already think that I’m hopelessly old-fashioned by still navigating mainly with paper charts and sailing directions.
I found that the digital charts of the (far)north are too poor of detail and too far off from datum, that they are practically unusable.

For many reasons, I actually prefer to navigate inside, opposite to your preferred way.
We do have a lexan sheet next to the wheel under which we can display a paper map while keeping it dry and prevent it from blowing away for the few occasions we will have to navigate through tight passages.
With whiteboard markers, one can plot bearings and sightings on the lexan and do manual navigation from behind the wheel that way.

Victor Raymond

I think you, Dick and others have covered all the bases here. I just want to point out that the number GPS enabled devices we have on board is staggering, nine at last count. We have a small globe on board and the 3 ft. by 4 ft. chart table has a world map embedded in case we wake up after a week long trance and wonder where in the world we are.
I love maps especially paper ones and as a older pilot learned how to navigate using them but can’t imagine having to do that again. I have vivid memories of shooting instrument approaches at night in rain, fog and enough turbulence to prevent the eyes from latching on to the essential numbers. And the grey hair to prove it.


Hi John

We have a C90W plotter and 15″ laptop in the cockpit. A C120w plotter at the Nav and a handheld. Our boat came with “a boat load” of charts covering for most of the Atlantic, both sides. Races require us to have the race route on paper so the collection grows. Part of me hates the stock pill that never gets used. Our first trip into Charleston, we arrived at the end of our batter’s charge, an inch away from dead boat. The paper was in the cockpit. Since, we are prepared to run on three different banks in 12v or 24v. The laptop is independent of course. We’ve diversified our power source but what about a lighting strikes. In my last bad lighting storm, I was just buried in close strikes for hours, I wrapped one of the plotters and the laptop in wetsuits and stowed them carefully. As much as I hate the paper pile, it always works. We’re slowly replacing our older charts with chart books, easy and smaller pile. I love the idea of paperless, I just can’t. Land sinks a lot of boats.

Ray Durkee

I sailed from San Francisco to Maine via the Panama Canal with a laptop below and a very small chartplotter. I had electronic charts only for the laptop and carried paper facsimilie charts for all the area. Never took them out except once or twice to get the big picture and for planning. I understand the Coast Guard has done away with paper charts as have the major shipping companies. I find jumping down to the chart table sometimes a bit inconvenient when navigating a tricky passage—but just as often when I was cruising alone, I was steering with the remote on the autopilot offshore and at night (half the time(, sometimes with bad weather, and it was nice to have a good place to sit and a nice workspace to look carefully at the chart detail—I would not have wanted to do that out in the cockpit at night with the wind lashing me. Since most of us who offshore probably steer less than 5% of the time, I think the answer to having a GPS display at the helm is “it depends”. I have a tiny chartplotter at the helm and a slightly larger one below and a laptop for backup. I carry a set of paper charts but generally only use them for planning or perusing, not actual navigation.

Eric Klem

Hi John,

I think that your conclusions are reasonable and I suspect that coastal cruisers will use less and less charts as time goes on.

I would certainly be comfortable using electronic charts as my primary means of navigation (reliability assumed) although my preference is to do a combination of electronic and paper. When working commercially, we always worked with full charts with big enough areas to lay them out but I have seen very few cruising boats that come even close to this. Our compromise on our own boat is chartbooks which I have grown to really appreciate as they work beautifully on a small chart table, cockpit seat or your lap. In calmer weather, we keep the chartbook in the cockpit and once things get rough and I worry about loosing it, we put it on the shelf just inside the companionway. Once there is a lot of water around, we switch to electronic only and that works fine but I spend a lot of time zooming in and out and it is much easier to loose awareness of what is happening. If we had a bigger screen on the plotter, we might be tempted to navigate with that more but frankly, most of the time it is off and I only turn it on when I think that it might be useful in the near future. To me, the real test is fog sailing where we use the plotter only in familiar waters but use paper to route plan and the plotter to execute in unfamiliar waters. If we had to choose between stocking all the paper charts and the plotter, we would probably choose the plotter but the chartbooks are a great size so we use them.

I had a surprisingly scary situation caused by an incorrect datum last fall as I was taking the boat solo up to where we haul for the winter. The yard is up a tidal river which has a ribbon of water with enough depth ~100′ wide which is buoyed and then large, submerged mudflats on either side. As I was heading up with an offshore breeze thinking that everything looked good, fog suddenly came in to the point where I couldn’t even come close to seeing buoy to buoy and I couldn’t see the marsh on either side. Given that there isn’t nearly enough water there for us to spend a tide cycle, I figured that I might as well continue on because that couldn’t be any worse than guaranteeing that the boat would be on its side in the mud in a few hours. The chart datum was off by probably a half mile or so which left me navigating with the depth sounder only (buoys were tiny with no radar return so I spent a lot of time in full reverse when the depths would rapidly decrease). Once I got to a buoy in a sharp bend, I was able to figure out where I was on the chart and took a piece of electrical tape and put it on the screen for my new boat marker. It was pretty tricky because the heading line wasn’t lined up with my new position and I couldn’t zoom but it did allow me to get through that tricky couple of miles at least knowing approximately what direction to head. Afterwards, I read the chartplotter manual more carefully to see if you could manually offset the datum on a temporary basis but could find no provision for doing so. Needless to say, I will be setting up waypoints as I go down the river this spring, I had never even had the plotter on before when making the trip. Looking back, there were several obvious things that I should have done differently, hopefully I don’t do that again but at least I know the trick of using a piece of tape.


Victor Raymond

Thanks for sharing your experience. One thing that I have found useful is turn on the TRAIL function of your plotter. It may have a different name but basic records your progress through the water. On frequently travelled routes I just retrace my trail and know that if I made it through six times before it will most likely be safe again. Most plotters allow one to select the frequency of recording so for tricky areas you increase the frequency for increased accuracy.
Just a thought although I will have to remember the tape trick too.

Eric Klem

Hi Victor,

You are correct, on our plotter it is the track function. We leave this on permanently at a medium resolution but the plotter automatically deletes old tracks as it needs to clear up more storage space (this might be an argument for a laptop). We tend not to leave the plotter on (I know that many disagree with me but having everything off is part of the fun for us) but even without it, we find that it can only store a month or two worth of track data. In this instance, I had never even had the plotter on going up the river before as the buoys are what you have to navigate by and looking back, I really should have stored some information on it whether it be a track or waypoints. The little bit of track data that I generated once I got the plotter on as the fog shut in was immensely helpful in figuring out where I was on the chart as you suggest. Another boat was following us up and when we both were docked, he realized that he had the track data from his trip down the river in the spring, had I known that I would have definitely not been leading.



Hi John. Just a simple point I think. GPS satellites can be taken offline for service or fail and we are not told about it. The commercial units take this into account and most will work in a DR ( dead reckoning ) mode via your last positions and info from your speed log. But I doubt most of us are using these several thousand dollar units. In aviation we have RAIM ( Receiver Autonomous Integrity Monitoring) to alert of us issues with regards to availability of signal and still have ground based navigation aids and inertial navigation to back things up. However, for ocean navigation we really have no clue that our GPS is giving good info until the day of our proposed landfall.

Solution. Paper charts and a sextant for offshore and some sort of gear to take compass bearings inshore. For us new to offshore cursing its a great way pick up and perfect skills of the old school and for those already schooled in celestial and costal navigation it’s a way to dust things off. And should you have some sort of catastrophic electrical failure you already have a DR plot running and life is that much easier allowing for more time to tend to the problem of fixing your ship.



Nick Kats

Michael, several times my GPS gave incorrect positions. I was off the coast & confirmed this with DR.

My position with GPS is the same as with everything else in navigation: Don’t trust it.

And yes, I don’t trust my own navigation, myself. Lack of trust is easily my best navigational tool. Keeps me on my toes.

Colin Reid

How would you do a tidal vector on a chartplotter or tablet? I’m thinking of a longer leg where the tidal stream changes or reverses. This is a common situation in UK waters. Its easy to work out and plot a course on a paper chart but I couldn’t do it on my chartplotter. Colin

Colin Reid

thanks John, yes of course, you don’t need a chart to do a tidal vector, as you say any scrap of paper will do. Interesting that this isn’t addressed by chartplotters though. C

Bill Attwood

Hi John,
I have some further comments on the topic of navigation and paper, prompted by Michael´s comment above.
I think it is important to make clear that the part of navigation which is properly referred to as pilotage, has special requirements, and I infer that this on what you have based much of your script. Use of the eyeball and land or sea-based features/marks together with charts – paper or electronic. I fully agree with you that pilotage, particularly when short-handed, needs to be done on deck. Besides a chart on a manageably sized board, a small whiteboard prepared beforehand with details like clearing bearings, buoys and distinctive landmarks makes the job easier. The other sort of navigation, offshore, I still believe is best done below decks, at a chart table and in (relative) comfort. Writing up the log, plotting a position are easier done sitting down and out of the rain/spray/wind. There may be a case for a boat as large as Morgans Cloud, with a centre cockpit, to have its navigation station under the dodger, but on the smaller sized yachts sailed by most of us, perhaps with an aft cockpit, this is not an option – hard dodger or no. Plotting a position on a chart needs a table or firm surface at least large enough to take a folded chart, and with fiddles to stop pencils, dividers, paralle rules etc disappearing.
My other point is that any SOLAS vessel which does not have an ECDIS must carry paper charts – no option. Although this does not directly affect pleasure yachts, it is for me a strong indication that paper charts are a requirement, not an option, for us too. You grew up using paper, and although you rely principally on electronic navigation systems, you´re well able to cope if they should suddenly collapse. Less experienced sailors who decide that paper is no longer absolutely necessary will, if their electronic systems should suddenly fail, probably be completely lost – never having had to use paper charts. Even an uncorrected chart is better than nothing in the event of a complete system collapse. Solar storms happen all the time, and one which is strong enough to affect or disrupt satellite-based navigation systems will come. One scientist has predicted that there is a 12% likelihood of a Carrington Event in the next 10 years. That would mean a major catastrophy but much smaller solar storms could cause serious disruption.
I hope that you will understand my persistence in putting forward my point of view, and I am reassured that it is reflected in some of the comments – I´m not the only one in step!
Although it would be an real undertaking, it would be of enormous benefit if original post and its comments could be consolidated into a revised chapter.
Yours aye,

Nick Kats

Recently a friend took me on a 2 day sail down the coast (west Ireland). He was very new to sailing. His chart? A little i-phone, nothing else. This made me really nervous for various reasons, & I decided not to sail again with him on his boat.

Dependency on electronic charts eliminates the need to learn & use DR skills. This is because electronics automatically give the boat’s position, whereas with paper charts you have to figure it out.

Any discussion of electronic charts must take into account the inherent tendency to neither learn nor use DR.

Old fashioned DR skills AND adequate paper charts are in my view essential & non negotiable.

Wilson Fitt

I am an old fartish paper navigator, probably too far gone for significant re-education, but after this summer’s cruise am forced to admit to a new-found appreciation for the wonders of electronic navigation. We spent a couple of weeks running narrow and rockbound inshore passages along Nova Scotia’s eastern shore, often in thick fog, with an iPad running Navionics charts on iNavx. The accuracy and clarity of presentation was little short of astonishing. It was a major stress reducer, showing exactly where we were, where we had been, where we were going and when we would get there. Hard to argue with that! Still, paper was and will remain always at hand with courses, bearings and waypoints marked and the Mark 1 eyeball in constant use even if sometimes impaired by mist on the glasses and fog in the air.

Tom Witzel

Hi John,
To throw another log on the fire of paper vs electronic charting, readers may find it interesting to read the article in the 2.17.16 edition of the Washington Post describing how the US Navy has recently changed its curriculum for teaching navigation skills to future officers. The link to this article is
Cheers, Tom

Paul Browning

Looks like we’ll only have raster charts (electronic or paper) from NOAA for another 3 or 4 years anyway. See

I think this is a terrible retrograde step.