Charting progress, and loss

Taken from a recent story in The Herald:

“The federal government will stop printing its giant paper nautical charts … after more than 150 years of producing them. Capt. Shep Smith, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine chart division, said the agency will still chart the water for rocks, shipwrecks and dangers, but mariners will have to see the information using private on-demand printing, PDF’s and electronic maps.”

And the hints just keep on coming.

It’s not enough that, every hunting season, I get a very simple reminder of the fact that time’s passing. This occurs when I stare at the hills that I used to climb without thought and, now, have to decide if I can make it to the top without the use of supplemental oxygen or the thought of becoming a “statistic” in the annual hunting incident report published by the state.

Too, when we recently replaced our in-house phones and while trying to figure out all of the new features I’d been presented with, I thought back to the black, armor-plated, rotary dial phone we used until I was a senior in high school. I’ll admit that the new features are useful, but I can also recall all of the changes that came between the time of that beast and the wireless set-up we just bought.

Now, it’s nautical charts. The guides that have been in constant use by mariners — daily, if not hourly — for, literally, hundreds of years.

These new electronic charts do make thing simpler. Changes to buoy positions, wrecks, shoals, reefs and other hazards to navigation that used to be made by hand now appear when the charts are called up. Track lines to and from destinations can be set by simply selecting waypoints and having the lines drawn electronically.

I came of maritime age having to use paper charts, sextants, chronometers, azimuth circles, almanacs and star fixes that would take an hour or more to compute and plot on a chart by hand. And I thought myself lucky. Lucky because those who’d preceded me (by hundreds of years) had had to be conversant in spherical trigonometry and use rudimentary charts that, very often, had the phrase “Beyond here be dragons” boldly imprinted upon them.

Now, instead of all of the above and, additionally, needing clear weather and good visibility, it all comes off of a monitor. Turn on the computers (heck, if you have coverage, just turn on your phone) and you can fix your position to within feet, determine your speed, calculate your distance traveled and time of arrival — all in the time it takes to push a button or tap a screen. It’s truly a marvel and the time and effort saved is something to be appreciated.

Still, there was something special about being on the ocean — far out of sight of land — and being able to do all of the above yourself. It gave you a feeling of pride and a special sense of connection to mariners past. It was satisfying to pick nine or ten stars, determine their angular altitudes with a sextant, note the precise time of each shot, and fix your position on a paper chart.

Months or even years later, you could go back to that chart and — through all of your notations, erasures, corrections — relive that time at sea. Further, there were some charts that became so special or so memorable that, when you replaced them, you would take the old one, have it framed, and hang it in your home.

I had one particular chart like that that hung for years. It reminded me of a passage we once made through Hell Gate — a narrow, twisting, and particularly treacherous tidal strait in the East River in New York City — that had my knees shaking more than I care to think about. You can check out any number of YouTube videos to see why.

Now, the changes are coming faster and, soon, published paper charts will disappear.

Progress is a good thing. But, when you take note, it’s also a stark reminder of the time that’s already passed and the good things that have gone with it.

Gets to you sometimes.

Larry Simoneaux lives in Edmonds. Send comments to:

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