How much value in traditional navigation plotting skills?

This whole chart-plot thread is fascinating.

I am a guy so determined that my people will know traditional navigation methods (including paper charts) that I buy expensive simulator time just to have them practice it and nothing but it. And then, because that’s not enough, I throw them into an open boat without an engine for a week, and have them practice traditional navigation in the back of beyond, ala Shackleton. That’s how sold I am on the usefulness of traditional navigation.

Now, in this forum I have had some people push back at me and say that paper charts and/or traditional navigation are passé (English translation: “worthless”). Yet those very same people in this thread upbraided the OP for not learning how to plot on charts.

So is the skill important or isn’t it? And if it isn’t important why are people being tested on it?
(Read my 2nd paragraph if you have any doubts about my view…)


It’s true paper charts are becoming obsolete and being fazed out by more advanced electronics I.e multiple redundant ECDIS units onboard.

But the skills and theory/knowledge that you gain by learning chart plot aren’t. Without this, the ECDIS becomes dangerous as you might not understand what you are looking at or why you are seeing what your are seeing shown on the screen.

Your chart plot abilities and knowledge are the link between ECDIS screen and what your eyes are seeing out the window.

And of course, as with any electronics, you stand the risk (even small) of failure, and you better know how to go old school.

Celestial nav is rarely used as a primary form of ship navigation, but a skill that must be learned and is tested on….just in case.

I wouldn’t worry.

I’ve hired people who got their license, and yet when forced to navigate strictly with traditional methods were incapable of it. I know, because I tested them on practical navigation on an actual vessel over several days. (The company is obsessed on the subject).

Since it is unlikely we came across the only examples of these poor navigators, it must be assumed that a percentage of USCG licensed “navigators” are similarly deficient. And yet there has been no marked upswings in the annual number of groundings that I can determine. The plotter is to navigation as steel-belted tires are to flats: the chance you will need to get your hands dirty are greatly reduced.

You’re preaching to the choir. :slightly_smiling_face:

But I’m sure someone else will come up with a closely-reasoned dissenting opinion.

There’s two question here, the one “what if” question if something fails etc. That’s above our paygrade because it’s a risk / probability type problem. Need to looks at data on time between failures or whatever.

The second question is what value is there in plotting on a paper chart? Say a mate is on a ship outbound with a pilot and the pilot goes outside and takes a round of bearings, comes back inside and plots them on the chart. In that case in doing those tasks there is nothing gained and time watching forward lost.

On the other hand the new third mate has no choice. They lack the pilot’s skill and experience. They are going to have use some kind of plotting tools to determine the ship’s position. But it’s still nothing but a cost.

Had a ride in a P-3 Orion during 70-72 to see how bubble sextants work. The crew knew how to do it and were proficient but relied on inertial and Loran-C simply because it was more real-time and efficient. They still had celestial for back-up and for crossings where Loran-A or C not available or when stations were inop. I agree in keeping the old for back up but also in “old-timey” work it in your head solutions like distance run is distance off (45° off bow to 90° abeam) can keep you in a channel or safely off the rocks passing an island. There are more of these gems stashed, just can’t remember now.
I got spoiled by a Lowrance chart plotter when we d had a Rossborough 246 (or what ever 24’6" length). Even had the capability of superimposing Furuno radar on the Lowrance. But small craft is only imitation of commercial. Like what if…whatcha gonna do if not prepared.

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About every five or ten years the NMC should convene a commission of MM captains to go through all the nav questions and determine which to keep and which to throw out. If there is controversy over a question it stays in. If everyone agrees they never relied on that bit of knowledge all questions pertaining to it get tossed from the bank. Otherwise deadwood accumulates.

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At least in Alaskan waters, the incidences of weather/visibility/lack of aids to navigation preventing traditional plotting outnumber the incidences of modern nav equipment failing by thousands.

Of the incidences of modern nav equipment failing every single occurrence was due to ships equipment failing/inability of ships officers to understand or operate their equipment.

Plotting techniques are plotting techniques. The only difference is whether you’re doing it on a computer screen, which is faster, more accurate, and easier to condense your inputs on.

The value in traditional plotting techniques is simply more inputs in addition to GPS position. Lives and ships are at stake, and it’s more important to get the most accurate inputs than to feel old timey-sailorly.

I like paper charts, I’m looking at one right now. I like planning on them. The main argument for maintaining them is that you can’t trust computers. This is often a view espoused by people who don’t understand that their main engines are now running on computers.

People that maintain that the old techniques are essential aren’t wrong, they just have messed up priorities. They might insist that people plot in the old fashion, but if you ask them which antenna is which, which cables are which, where’s the backup power supply, where’s the switch for a backup monitor, etc, they will often look at you blankly. ‘The uh, electronics guy does that stuff’. Usually a shoreside contractor.

If you were to bring Jack Aubrey forward to the present day he would be fascinated by modern nav systems and devote himself to learning all about them, having his own as a backup just as he had his own chronometer, and taking full advantage of their capabilities. Far too many dark nights off the iron-bound coast of Spain with no hope of an observation to be a romantic.


been there, done that - - THANKS for the EDUCATION - - travelled more than 5500 miles in the US and Canada in a 19’ motor canoe. HAD to have PAPER CHARTS for the whole route - - quite educational


and - - you cannot HACK a paper chart


Out alone in open waters, it’s OK to see your ship as a dot on a plot. But, in tight quarters, it’s better seen as a big steel structure, possibly yawing, pitching, and rolling in close quarters with the bottom, shores, and other traffic.

Sounds like an adventure. Which waterways?

Traditional things that are not practically used at sea anymore should only be taught for about 1 hour during training. A very brief summary is all cadets need to know, anything more than that is just a total waste of time.

Some more progressive countries have more or less done away with teaching outdated things to cadets, they just give a brief summary to meet the bare minimum required by STCW. Some less progressive countries still make their cadets waste a massive amount of time learning things they will never use in the real world, too many people without common sense in charge of the curriculums in these countries.

The ECDIS that I’m familiar with (Transas) had the capability of plotting bearings and ranges directly onto the display. Taking the bearing and ranges took about the same time either way but plotting on the ECDIS was quicker than on paper. The ECDIS also plotted and displayed a GPS fix at the time for comparison.

There is no need to plot at fixed intervals for comparison with the DR so it could be done by the watch officer when convenient.

I thought that overall that was a more reliable system taking into account the higher risk of human error with the paper chart.

As far as a paper being more reliable does anyone think we should use paper plotting sheets for collision avoidance instead of ARPA?

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Sweet Jesus, no.

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Go back? Did anyone go back to paper when radars stopped having reflection plotters? ARPA was around for at least several years before the reflection plotters started going away. Even with a reflection plotter, I didn’t always do a full plot, I just used the EBL to verify the info the ARPA was giving me.

It was a dream from high school days - - the Great Circle - - around the Eastern US by boat - - I could only AFFORD the motor canoe - - 19’ Grumman square-stern with 4 1/2 hp Evinrude.
Mississippi R to Gulf - across Florida on Okeechobee - up East coast on Intracoastal Waterway - - up Hudson to Champlain - down Richelieu to St. Lawrence - up Ottawa R to Ottawa - - Rideau Canal to Lake Ontario - to Richelieu canal to Lake Huron (bypassing Erie) - to Lake Michigan to Chicago - -down Sanitation Canal to Illinois to Mississippi R. to where we started.


Point is that just looking at one single element alone is not enough. Making comparisons only by which substrate is used to actually to display the information is not useful. Have to look at the reliability of the system as a whole.

I did use paper to plot just a few years back in the radar renewal class. I didn’t like it.

Also - edited my post.

About 1,000 years ago when I started to learn this stuff, I was taught to navigate by all available means, and have a healthy level of skepticism in any individual method.

Hopefully the great new electronics have not changed that.

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My concern is too much faith in one method. The view on the nav screen, and the radar, and the window should all be the same.

As an example - while on shore assignment I was called out to board a ship on our charter that was aground at anchor. While on the boat out to the ship we went past the chain which was under a very heavy strain. When I got to the bridge and spoke to the Master he was adamant that he was not aground and kept pointing to the electronic position as evidence.

I said, while I hear you Captain, why are you not pointing in the same direction as every other ship in the anchorage?

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