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What is a Nautical Chart?
(Bowditch, The American Practical Navigator, 2002)

A nautical chart represents part of the spherical earth on a plane surface. It shows water depth, the shoreline of adjacent land, prominent topographic features, aids to navigation, and other navigational information. It is a work area on which the navigator plots courses, ascertains positions, and views the relationship of the ship to the surrounding area. It assists the navigator in avoiding dangers and arriving safely at his destination. Originally hand-drawn on sheepskin, traditional nautical charts have for generations been printed on paper.

Electronic charts consisting of a digital database and a display system are in use and are replacing paper charts aboard many vessels. An electronic chart is not simply a digital version of a paper chart; it introduces a new navigation methodology with capabilities and limitations very different from paper charts. The electronic chart is the legal equivalent of the paper chart if it meets certain International Maritime Organization specifications.

Should a marine accident occur, the nautical chart in use at the time takes on legal significance. In cases of grounding, collision, and other accidents, charts become critical records for reconstructing the event and assigning liability. Charts used in reconstructing the incident can also have tremendous training value.


NOAA nautical chart of Cape Henry area showing depths off shore, and approach channel.
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