Things You Cannot Find on a Nautical Chart

This is partly a review but the list is getting longer.

Vessels. These may be moving or stationery. The only vessels charted are shipwrecks. One of those little shipwreck symbols can instantly de-euphorize any great passage. By the way, did you know this?   If you drop an anchor on a steel shipwreck, “galvanic action can strip the zinc off the anchor chain in a matter of days!” (Thank you, Nigel Calder)

Marine mammals. It took us an afternoon of terror in Fitz Hugh Sound to figure this one out. Sure we were very tired from our first rounding Cape Caution and the surf had come up and froth was sloshing up against every little rocky island. Still, the effort we put into searching our charts for all those frothing rocks around us! Then, ah ha! Whales! Eventually we figured out “How to Tell a Rock from Large Mammal.”

Yes, we're going to hit that fog bank.
Yes, we’re going to hit that fog bank.

Fog banks. These sneak up in magical ways. Sometimes you can see them coming toward you, sometimes they descend from the blue heavens, sometimes you have to bang right into one to avoid banging into something harder. When you hit one, your eyes hurt. In the blinding light you gradually go blind. Then your mind, rather than your eyesight, takes over and starts telling you what you are seeing. Phantoms, dangerous and disorienting.

The two guys standing in the 12 foot boat. It’s not the vessel that counts here. The boat has less footage than the guys plus no radar, AIS, fog siren canister. Until this year, our worst day of fog was July 23, 2011.  It was the opening Sunday of salmon season between Port Renfrew and Sooke on the SW coast of Vancouver Island. Ten miles offshore hundreds of little boats heavy with humans, joy and anticipation. I stood in the bow, listened for voices and told Jack when to jog to port or starboard.

Aids to Navigation. Specifically the buoys, lights, reds and greens added since publication of the chart. Or since the release of electronic substitutes with data misappropriated from said chart. Like 16A in Wrangell Narrows. Which southbound you can mistake for 16, northbound for 18. Either way, the consequences are not pretty.

Hardscape. Scan any cruising guide for the term “uncharted rocks.” See?

Icebergs. The summer of 2014 followed a dry, moderate winter. We cruised among green peaks that other years had remained white and through clear waters that we’d expected to be clouded with silt and sprinkled with bergie bits. No reason to be on the look out. And yet there they were, proud survivors of glacial calving, the largest with a waterline diameter of several times our boat length.

Mirages. “See those two islands in the middle of the channel?” Everyone does. They’re far enough distant to still appear blue grey, their steep cliffs astonishing. And yet as we continue through Stephens Passage past Holkham Bay, they’re gone. Several weeks later later we decipher the deception with the help of Kevin Moran’s Local Knowledge. When the very cool air spilling down from the glaciers through Holkham Bay meets meets the warmer air in the channel  it may produces a mirage in which distances appear shortened and low lying islands “smear” vertically.

The direction you are headed. When you’re reading a chart in the library, you’re going nowhere. Maybe I’m just being cranky. But consider the on-board alternatives. Are they any more mindful, despite being in-the-moment?  The chart plotter says you are going toward the top of the chart plotter and gives you a heading based on the Magnetic Pole.   The radar screen tells you you are moving up a straight line in the middle of a bunch of concentric circles and gives you a True heading, which in the Inside Passage is off what your compass says by anywhere from 15 to 20 degrees. One plus for charts: east, west, north, south seem to be where they should be.


Author: Carol McCreary

10 Inside Passages to Alaska. 10,000 miles. 10,000 hours on the S/V Aurora. This is the story of how Jack and I took up sailing late in life and are now finally getting the hang of it.

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