Features May 15, 2003 Issue

Chart Kits

It's still important to carry paper charts, and it can be a pleasure, not just a duty. Maptech's market share and attention to detail are hard to beat, but some of the more local publishers also have much to offer.

With all the attention we've devoted in recent months to electronic charts and charting programs, we need to spend some ink on the paper versions and their presentation formats. The last time we took a close look was more than a decade ago. 

There are few bodies of navigable water (where we might go for fun, anyway) that are not encapsulated in bound chart kits with helpful notes, and even, sometimes, helpful advertising.

Before going on, we have to repeat, for the umpteenth time, the admonition that no matter how sophisticated and backed-up your electronic navigation capabilities, you need to carry paper charts of the areas in which you sail. Moreover, you need to brush up on your dead-reckoning skills once in a while. If you have no dead-reckoning skills, you really should not go out of sight of things that are very familiar to you.

Electronics and electrical systems today are pretty good, and you may never yet have gotten lost by relying on them. But the first time you do get good and lost on the water, with your electronics down and out, and either no paper charts aboard or no skills to use them, you will vividly remember what your government, your devoted PS editors, and even the people who make the electronics have said so tediously all these years. Alrighty then.

You certainly don't need a complete set of government-produced charts, edging up toward $20 a pop, to make the voyage to the gas dock, or hardly anywhere else continental. (If you're commercial, Uncle Sam's laws say you must have aboard Uncle Sam's charts—which seems a bit cozy.)

Along with the emergence of electronic charting as something more substantial than a novelty, the above-mentioned per-pop is the primary reason why commercially produced books of charts, along with cruising guides, have become so popular and so well-accepted. They're handy, accurate, and cheaper than buying a bunch of charts individually.

Government charts, once a buck or two each, used to be one of the world's great values. We used to buy them just to dream away the dull northern winters. The Keys, Antigua, Tahiti, the Med…we sailed everywhere, even The Horn!

However, at today prices, a set of charts to make a weekend run down the coast can cost several hundred dollars. (There are those who claim that U.S. charts, sold mostly through authorized dealers for a nickel shy of $18, still are a bargain; French, British and Australian charts go for about $35.)

That's why chart books and cruising guides have proliferated rapidly in the last couple of decades. Some are for passagemaking, others are for harbors. Some are plain reproductions of government-produced charts. Others have many added navigational features. Many have advertising, some of which (like ads for marina and repair facilities) may be welcome.

There are so many now that if you collected all of them you'd have a mountain growing faster than Nanga Parbat, which is the fastest-growing mountain in the world.

Practical Sailor has reported often on the development of electronic charting, but now it's time to go back, chase down, and evaluate the paper that sailors pack aboard.

For clarity's sake, let's divide these valuable publications into two roughly defined piles: 1. Bound books of charts and 2. Cruising guides, which are mostly written descriptions of shoreline features, generally of a specific area.

We'll deal only with the chart books in this article, and will pursue cruising guides in a subsequent issue.

Books of Charts
In any nautical book store or chandlery, there's a corner with some big expensive cases with many flat drawers. Contained therein are government charts. The drawers, with their precious contents, don't get opened nearly as much as they used to.

That's because there is nearby a huge rack displaying collections of charts in big books with wire or plastic spiral bindings. There are a lot of them, and the features of the better-known books are detailed in the chart on pages 12-13. The features are important because individual sailors seem to have individual needs and preferences. To some, Loran grids are still important. Others obtain quick orientation from aerial photos to help with harbor entrances. Those who are color blind have strong preferences.

The Massachusetts-based company named Maptech has a lion's share of the chartbook business. Rightfully so. The books, in four categories, are good.

Three offerings from Maptech are the big basic 17" x 22" chart collections, called ChartKits, which have been around for about 25 years; compact 12" x 17" ChartKits (with big fold-out pages), and the 12" x 17" Waterproof Chartbooks. To read the fine print of the Waterproof books, you need perfect eyesight or a magnifying glass.

The fourth category is the Embassy books, which Map-tech bought several years ago. Embassy was a fairly new company that aimed at combining a handy-sized harbor chartbook with a cruising guide and advertising. The 8.5" x 11" Embassy books (nine editions were produced before Maptech took them over) were different in that they incorporated local knowledge, marina information, tips and suggestion—in short, a trove of written information, plus a lot of advertising, some of which can be very useful, for phone numbers, web sites, etc.

All of the Maptech books contain more detail than standard government charts. (See the table at end of story for details. For 2003, Maptech has cut about in half the price of some Compact Chartbooks.)

The full-sized Maptech books begin with magnificent aerial photos. For instance, the Pacific Northwest edition contains 12 full pages, with nine 4" x 6" photos each, for a total of 108 views of popular harbors.

Maptech also sells single waterproof charts for $19.95, only two bucks more than a plain government paper chart. Finally, Maptech has the exclusive right to sell electronic versions of the actual NOAA paper charts. These are known as raster charts, as opposed to vector charts.

Practical Sailor has been covering electronic charting topics like a cheap suit for many months, so we'll leave them alone in this article.

Richardsons', another Massachusetts company, came along a bit later and was successful in introducing chartbooks to Great Lakes sailors.

Richardsons' original chartbooks were and still are a bit skimpy—two-color charts and black and white photos. However, in its new waterproof books, the company is attempting to match Maptech's quality, with full color charts, and added detail and information.

As Practical Sailor has so often observed, competition between outstanding companies like Maptech and Richardsons' benefits all sailors.

After dealing with the two big American companies, it gets difficult even to list all the smaller companies who make chart books for smaller or less popular waters of the United States and nearby areas. (For some areas, there is but one choice, and that makes that book both popular and valuable.)

However, certainly worth mentioning are those generally considered to be outstanding or unusual.

Lakeland Boating's harbor chart books compliment very nicely the Richardsons' big chartkits.

For the Caribbean, Practical Sailor has heard that all government charts (U.S., British, French, whatever) are still inferior to the privately produced charts from CYC (Caribbean Yachting Charts) and the much older firm called Imray-Iolaire. These private charts have more soundings, more information, and far better detail. (Weems & Plath in Annapolis is the official importer of Imray charts, which stem from work done by Irishman Don Street (one of the Caribbean’s most colorful characters), They are sold separately—39 of them for Caribbean waters, 9 more for coastal Venezuela—and you can buy all 48 for a paltry $1,150….which is a $95.60 discount over the individual price of $1,245.60. Whoopee!

(Imray, Laurie, Norie & Wilson Ltd. is a huge English chart company; if you're going foreign, you can e-mail ilnw@imray.com—for a catalog.)

CYC, whose moving party is Chris Doyle, puts up four sets of about eight charts (see table).

The Evergreen Pacific books shown in the table are not true chart books, but will tell you how and why a member of Butch Cassidy's Hole-In-The-Wall gang shot up Skagit Island and who Captain Vancouver was. For those who love history and like to know about the areas where they sail, the Evergreen books are very enjoyable.

Also for the Pacific Northwest, the Marine Atlases and the famous Charlie's Charts are the work of now-dead individuals who loved the waters they sailed and wanted all those who followed to have a safe and happy time.

Very special, too, is the work of Monty and Sara Lewis (he's a retired Maryland State Police sergeant) and their editor, Kate Fears (a widely known racing sailor) in putting together three chartkits that are about all you need to "do" the Bahamas.

There's no room to mention here the many other chartkits for limited waters. A good example is the new Chartracker book ($50) which does for the Florida Keys what the Lewises did for the Bahamas. The Chartracker is the work of another dedicated sailor, Katherine Giampietro Redmond.

The favored ICW chartbook is, as it has been for years, Bill and Janet Moeller's The Intercoastal Waterway; A Cockpit Cruising Handbook, which, despite its name, is more of a chartkit than cruising guide.

The Bottom Line
Because recommending chartbooks runs into the well-recognized likes and dislikes of individual navigators and because there are so many books available, we can only suggest a bit of legwork, or at least Web-surfing. In the United States there are some chandleries that cater to the commercial big ship business. They don't even want to see a "yachtsman" darken their doorway, and are quite brusque on the phone. However, there have long existed a few bookstore/chart dealers who cater to the pleasureboat set—perhaps half a dozen are well-known. These are brick-and-mortar stores, but all have presences on the Web, too.

The concept originated with a ex-British sailor, Ron Barr, who several decades ago opened in Newport, Rhode Island, what he called The Armchair Sailor. It started out as a bookstore, with charts. It evolved to the point where it now is primarily a service supplying navigational charts cruising guides, and advice.

Barr sold out a few years ago, and just recently The Armchair Sailor was sold again, to John Mann and Vivien Godfrey, who at the same time bought up a similar business called Bluewater Books & Charts in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

In Connecticut, there's Henry Marx's Landfall Navigation, which handles instruments, charts (including offshore and foreign charts) and safety equipment.

On the West Coast, there are two or three principal chart shores, including a Seattle Armchair Sailor that came to being with Ron Barr's attempt to franchise his idea. The biggest and oldest (since 1897) is Captain's Nautical Supply in Seattle, which opened to handle the Klondike Gold Rush traffic. The newest is Waypoint in Alameda, CA.

If you're lucky enough to live near any of these stores, drop in for a talk with their resident experts. They're all chart-lovers from way back, and will be glad to set you on the right course. Otherwise, the surf zones are listed below.


Also With This Article
Click here to view "Value Guide: Chart Kits 2003."
Click here to view "Government Fun With Cartography."

The Armchair Sailor (Newport), 800/292-4278, www.seabooks.com
The Armchair Sailor (Seattle), 800/875-0852, www.armchairsailorseattle.com
Bluewater Books & Charts, 800/942-2583, www.bluewaterweb.com
Captain’s Nautical Supply, 800/448-2278, www.Captainsnauticalsupply.com
Landfall Navigation, 800/941-2219, www.landfallnav.com
Waypoint Nautical Books, 800/584-4114, www.waypoints.com

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