Charting Dreams

Even in a digital age, nothing sparks the imagination like the look and feel of an old-fashioned paper chart. By Ken Textor

As a cruiser-to-be, Rob was demonstrably excited when he came to buy my short stack of charts of New England. “This is definitely a bargain,” he said after making the hour-long trip from Rockland, Maine, adding, “in more ways than just the money.”

I had to agree with him, even though I was actually going to end up with a tidy sum. But as most long-range cruisers know, money is rarely the most important part of extended time on the water.

In fact, since Rob and I are both of the generation that grew up long before electronic charts were invented, we both knew instantly why the monetary consideration was not paramount. Large paper charts go beyond the obvious advantages of plotting courses quickly and easily, or make wide-ranging judgments instantly or never worrying about computer glitches, power problems and the like. To us, paper charts have more to do with why anyone goes cruising along the New England coast in the first place: dreams.

In addition to being a delightful combination of art and science, paper charts allow the mind to roam as no electronic chart can. Both Rob and I agreed electronic charts are a bigger financial bargain than paper. And they also come with some nifty plotting tricks and safety advantages to sweeten the deal. For complex coastwise cruising, we agreed, electronic charts are hard to beat. So it was no surprise when he said his proposed cruise was going to include electronic charts as well as my paper versions.

But cruising doesn’t begin and end with what’s aboard the boat. Cruising really begins with what’s in the mind, long before anyone steps aboard. As every mariner who ever unrolled a stiff, salt-encrusted chart on an oversized mahogany table will confirm, the mind positively explodes with thoughts of possibilities when you see a three-by-four-foot representation of a coast you’ve never visited before. Staring at it for hours at a time and just imaging what is to come is common, almost obligatory and, essentially, priceless.

Indeed, the 27 charts I was selling to Rob never actually helped me fulfill the dream of sailing to places I’ve never visited south of Cape Cod. Shortly after I invested some $450 in them, life and fate dictated another avenue for me and my family. One rescheduling lead to another rescheduling until, finally, cancellation became the only reasonable solution. I’d have to stick close to my home waters in Maine.

But in the years since I bought those charts, I’ve laid them out many times and just dreamed of that little cove near Sag Harbor, or imagined dodging tankers in the west end of Long Island Sound, or wondered if Monomoy really is foggier than my home waters near Seguin Island. In short, those paper charts gave me value that I realized even without using them for navigation. My computer screen representations of the same areas just couldn’t do the same.

Best of all, those charts survived in perfect shape for seven years and, although I was asking only a fraction of what I paid for them, they will continue to be invaluable for Rob as he plans his trips. No software upgrades, no additional hard drive memory, no chip upgrades or card inserts necessary. A desire to dream is all that Rob needs.

Paper charts may eventually go the way of the belaying pin and sounding lead, but I think Rob and I count ourselves lucky to have lived in the last years during which our eyes, hands and minds alone counted for a lot while navigating and cruising. And of course dreaming is half the trip—the priceless half.