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I have recently read some books and courses on nautical navigation. All of these start teaching how you use paper based navigation charts, and teach the usage of protractors and such. There is even the guidance to mark the route on the chart with a pencil, so it can easily be erased afterwards. The obvious alternative would be to use electronic navigation equipment that can simplify these tasks a great deal.

Now, I understand that sailing is very much an exercise in risk management, and everything must have a backup and a second backup - so even star navigation is taught in some places. However, I would expect that when sailing a decently sized and equipped vessel, I personally would have access to:

  • Primary navigation equipment built into the boat, including GPS and charts
  • Laptop with downloaded charts and navigation software
  • Tablet with downloaded charts and navigation software and GPS
  • Phone or several phones with downloaded charts, navigation software and GPS
  • A floating handheld navigator with GPS and charts (or two)
  • GPS location on my waterproof wristwatch, perhaps even charts

In addition to these, there would be several ways to generate power on the boat, and several power banks that can be used to charge equipment.

The unexpected can always happen and depending too much on technology can be a problem - but I am honestly having a hard time figuring out a situation where I would have access and means to use a paper chart, but would not have at least one electronic device with GPS and charts available.

So is this vestige of simpler times, or is there a significant reason to actually have a paper chart and tools for navigation and taking the time to learn their usage.


Thank you for the answers so far. Even though there hasn't been a lot of new information in them, they have been very helpful in understanding the mindset.

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    There is a single point of failure in your setup - GPS system itself. Although it is very low probability it can fail or can be switched off for some time. Satellite signal can be obscured/reduced due to weather too.
    – Wiktor
    Sep 5 at 13:07
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    Land navigation should start with paper maps as well. Learning how to orient yourself to your surroundings is a necessary skill.
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 5 at 14:44
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    Learning on paper is different than operating on paper, and your question seems to conflate the two. Many of the chart-use skills taught with paper charts transfer directly to the use of charts on electronic devices. The most important chart-taught skillset that comes to my mind is dead reckoning. Electronic chart UIs seem terrible for learning DR. But if the question is of operations and having more full sets of up-to-date charts versus more electronics, I'd go for the electronics.
    – Dave X
    Sep 5 at 17:24
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To expand a bit on Toby Speight's answer, I want to follow up on this comment of yours:

I agree fully - any time spent dealing with the particular implementations is a distraction from that objective. Yet paper based navigation spends time teaching how to work a protractor, how to measure angles, how to move parallel lines, how to calculate distances with a scale, how to calculate travel durations, how to look up coordinates, etc. Drawing a single line on an electronic map directly gives exact coordinates, distance, heading and duration if speed is given as well.

It is indeed true that learning skills that would only be applicable to a paper map is a waste of time. However boating is a tradition spanning thousands of years, so you can't expect it to change overnight. Knowing things like working a protractor could be taught because:

  1. It might be required to get a boating license in your local jurisdiction. No point in skipping this knowledge if you won't pass the exam otherwise.
  2. Its easier for the instructor to teach you on paper. They've probably been trained on paper maps and their original instructor was trained on paper maps, so they're not interested in spending time developing an electronic-only curriculum. Keep in mind that waterproof phones/tablets with a 7+ inch display and powerful navigation software only became available in the past few years.
  3. Training people this way is cheaper. As mentioned by Toby, giving everyone a printout (or a PDF, in case of remote learning) costs a few cents per lesson. Loaning everyone a particular GPS model or installing particular GPS software on everyone's laptops is a big headache.
  4. "We've always done it this way". Captains probably look down on anyone incapable of paper-based navigation, so they would likewise consider their training incomplete if it meant you'd be breaking a tradition spanning several centuries.
  5. Paper might still be the way to go in extreme situations. Sure, you might only need a license to sail near the shore on sunny summer days but there are still people sailing all the way from San Francisco to Sydney or from Cape Town to Buenos Aires. Relying on powerbanks is a risky move if you've still got two weeks before reaching shore and your electrical systems fail.
  6. You can't avoid it if you plan to sail large vessels (thanks @DaveX). A small motor-powered yacht can stop and turn on a whim so its very easy to avoid obstacles. Meanwhile a large cargo tanker requires a few miles to slowdown from full speed, so the captain has to be very careful to plan ahead to avoid collisions - and while software exists to help with this, they're expected to be able to do it manually if required.

Unless you find a progressive school willing to forego all paper, you have no choice but to complete the training as mandated by the school. It might be illogical, but it is what it is.

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  • How to read a protractor, draw a parallel line, or read a scale don't take much time to teach, but some of the things you can do with those skills on paper can't easily be done (let alone taught) on common GPS implementations, like drawing a second line on an electronic map for another vessel to see if/when you'll collide with them.
    – Dave X
    Sep 7 at 4:05
  • @DaveX but you wouldn’t use common GPS software? You’d be using something like an IPad Pro with specialized apps like this one. Sep 7 at 5:02
  • @DaveX add something like this app with AIS support and you’re in great shape. Sep 7 at 5:26
  • @jonathanRees I don't have that Pro Charts app. Does it give you a way to draw second lines (i.e. non point-to-point route lines) and measure their angles or distances? There's lots of specialized apps that do one thing very well, (and monetize that), but they don't even attempt to work together. Folks adapt to their favorite app and learn it's capabilities well, and don't learn "navigation". Even adding the AIS app, you can't use "navigation" to track a non AIS-transmitting boat.
    – Dave X
    Sep 7 at 16:19
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    The navigation software I have tested years earlier allowed drawing any number of lines and squiggles on the map, giving their lengths and angles automatically, and angles between crossing lines, making a parallel line, etc. - this in addition to being able to plot a real route and give time estimates on that route based on given speeds. Very intuitive to use with a mouse, if you've ever used any vector drawing applications. Don't remember the name, but used it to do dead reckoning for a submarine game back then ;-)
    – Nakedible
    Sep 10 at 7:14
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The point of a navigation course is to teach people how to navigate, not how to use particular electronic devices.

The principles of navigation are most easily taught using ordinary (paper) charts, without having to deal with the idiosyncrasies of particular devices - not to mention that it's easier to provide working charts for all the students if they are simple, reliable and cheap.

If the vessel you end up working on has electronic charts, then all the principles learnt on a navigation course (e.g. understanding the symbol sets, calculating tidal streams, planning a passage) can be applied regardless of the particular device used.

Remember that the course is to teach the unchanging principles, and any time spent dealing with the particular implementations is a distraction from that objective.

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    In a classroom setting it's also easier to check students' work as they go, when everything is spread out on paper and the only way to catch user errors is the user's own checking
    – Chris H
    Sep 6 at 8:38
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    I agree fully - any time spent dealing with the particular implementations is a distraction from that objective. Yet paper based navigation spends time teaching how to work a protractor, how to measure angles, how to move parallel lines, how to calculate distances with a scale, how to calculate travel durations, how to look up coordinates, etc. Drawing a single line on an electronic map directly gives exact coordinates, distance, heading and duration if speed is given as well. There's less to teach when using electronic tools, so more time can be spent on learning actual navigation.
    – Nakedible
    Sep 6 at 9:34
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    All the courses I've seen recently are remote, due to covid, so electronic tools are easier to check than trying to show a paper map through Zoom.
    – Nakedible
    Sep 6 at 9:38
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    @Nakedible teaching that's been converted to online is a bit of a special case. However the need to get everyone using the same compatible software, and to deliver online teaching (of that software as well as the principles of navigation) means a significant rewrite of the course, just at a time when it's hard to run trial courses and observe the tutees closely. If people really have to be taught the basic maths, then there was something wrong with their prior education; a refresher should be all that's needed - and that material should be refreshed even if electronic tools are being used.
    – Chris H
    Sep 6 at 9:55
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    Not quite enough for its own answer: By going through all the processes yourself, calculating step by step, and not relying on automated tools, you'll get far more of a feel for the correctness of the answer than if you always rely on black-boxes. As you (@Nakedible) have pointed out, kit is reliable and can be duplicated; a major failure is user error. If you mistype 090° as 009° when calculating the heading you need in the presence of a current, you'll get an answer; to get a feeling for whether that answer is right takes a familiarity with the underlying navigation
    – Chris H
    Sep 6 at 10:34
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The simple answer is that electronics fail, paper doesn't. You can read the paper map now, 6 hours from now, next week, next month, next year and it will be the same, but your devices will run out of power and be unusable in a short time-frame.

Those points in your question all rely on the use of powered devices. The GPS on your tablet/phone/watch all have limited battery life. Say you are a few hundred nautical miles from nearest land, and you have an electrical fire on board, taking out your motor and electronic systems in the boat (this is not unheard of). You now need to navigate to shore. The paper maps you can read any time you like.

(FYI - the average sailing speed of a wind-powered boat is about 4-5 knots, so about 24 h per 100 nautical miles in a straight line under optimal conditions, which they never are when sailing.)

Paper maps also allow a level of interaction and scale that you simply can't easily get on an electronic device - most paper maps can show you a large area all at once, but a screen is limited by the size of the device, making it hard to get an overall picture of the location and directions needed. Dead-reckoning using analogue devices is only really easy on a paper map too, as you can draw on it, even over large scales, so that you can work out the next steps easily.

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    Paper fails too, if it gets too wet, or burned, or you can't access it because it's too big to lug around. I would say a handheld marine GPS has a lower failure rate than paper, if we consider purely how likely it is that you can actually use that method for navigation. And battery life on such devices is really good (days or weeks), especially if it doesn't need to be on 24/7. Even a cell phone would do very well, if you turn off all the radios and use only when necessary. And that's assuming that there's no portable power banks, solar chargers or anything left.
    – Nakedible
    Sep 6 at 6:17
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    As for the interaction - I've used plenty of paper maps and mapbooks for land navigation. And honestly, I prefer a 4K display with infinite zoom. Paper maps always have edges, while an electronic one does not. I agree that a map on a 320x240 screen is a horrible experience, but that would only be in an emergency if you've lost all better devices. And finally, drawing on an electronic map with exact angles, distances and positions, not to mention infinite undo, is certainly easier, is it not? Unless you are just used to paper maps...
    – Nakedible
    Sep 6 at 6:25
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    @Nakedible - sure, some devices might be nice to use, zoom is good too, but if you want to plot a course across a map having to scroll is less accurate. I've never come across an "infinte undo" electronic device, so I can't comment there, but the principle applies - paper maps don't fail with anywhere near the regularity that electronics do in the real world. Also note that no everyone sails a "decent sized and well equipped" boat! GPS location is well and good - you still need a map to use it!
    – bob1
    Sep 6 at 9:29

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