Navigating by touch


By Christopher Gerber, Digital Editor
November 22, 2013
Filed under Chris Gerber

Coming from a young guy, there's something to be said for doing things the old-fashioned way, but increasingly that's not an option. The NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey announced last month that it would no longer be printing out traditional paper nautical charts beginning in April of 2014. As someone who is never seen without his smartphone and tablet, it surprises many people who ask, but I still prefer navigating by pen and paper.

Paper maps don’t have the same “sink or swim” significance that they may have had 70 years ago, but for map junkies like myself, and others here on staff, they have a certain rugged mystique. Whether finding the quickest route through a mountain range or finding the safest way to shore, there’s a certain feeling that comes from picking up a parallel rule, protractor and 4-inch divider and diving into a broadsheet to begin navigating.

It’s certainly nostalgic. There are memories associated with holding those tools. Whenever I grab a map, I can remember the weekend I learned to orienteer. And there’s even more to be said for the feeling of navigating the same way or with the same materials that have been around since I or even my grandparents were children. It’s a connection to our history and the lives of millions of seafarers and explorers before us.

Or maybe they’re just maps. But for folks like me, completely entrenched in technology but still fascinated by artisans and passionate hobbyists, doing things the modern way makes sense for the mundane tasks of looking up restaurant reviews or checking email, not for the passions like cruising or sailing.

The Office of Coast Survey, which produced the maps, announced the changes last month. Formed in 1807 by President Thomas Jefferson, it has has been charting and surveying coastal waters, responded to maritime emergencies, and provided mariners with navigation information necessary to maneuver through ever-changing coastal obstructions. The traditional paper maps themselves have been printed since 1862; over 151 years.

But in the modern era, traditional paper maps have become mostly obsolete. Many are several months out of date, and with climate change particularly affecting coasts, the accuracy of the data and rapid access to the latest data can mean that charts that are several months out of date are inadvertently leading boats toward watery graves. And as markets do, lower demand for the item eventually drove it out. Though, I feel it’s important to note, I can still send a telegram if I want to.

For many hikers like myself, paper maps are still the only choice. There’s too much at stake to rely on technology what can be solved with 100-percent certain on paper. Battery power runs out and electricity is not available, GPS are great at telling you where you are but terrible at telling you the best way to get somewhere, and laminated or waterproof paper is far more durable and lighter than any electronic device. But more and more, “going paperless” has become less a choice and more of a mandate for modern mariners and explorers.

You’ll still be able to keep to the old ways, the NOAA said. Paper maps will be available through print on demand services at specialized agents and maps will always be no more than a week out of date. But no longer will local shops carry the tools and knowledge of history’s greatest sailors. After April, if you want to figure out the safest way around, you’ll be shelling out a few thousand on the latest electronics. Or you could always just wing it.

Whether you like it or not, it’s time to bathe in the warm glow of LCD screens a little more, get a little more in touch with our touchscreen phones and finally program the time on our DVRs. The future has already moved in, and it’s starting to get a little too comfortable in our favorite chairs.


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