(Bowditch, The American Practical Navigator, 2002)
The scale of a chart is the ratio of a given distance on the chart to the actual distance which it represents on the earth. It may be expressed in various ways. The most common are:
- A simple ratio or fraction, known as the representative fraction. For example, 1:80,000 or 1/80,000 means that one unit (such as a meter) on the chart represents 80,000 of the same unit on the surface of the earth. This scale is sometimes called the natural or fractional scale.
- A statement that a given distance on the earth equals a given measure on the chart, or vice versa. For example, “30 miles to the inch” means that 1 inch on the chart represents 30 miles of the earth’s surface. Similarly, “2 inches to a mile” indicates that 2 inches on the chart represent 1 mile on the earth. This is sometimes called the numerical scale.
- A line or bar called a graphic scale may be drawn at a convenient place on the chart and subdivided into nautical miles, meters, etc.
All charts vary somewhat in scale from point to point, and in some projections the scale is not the same in all directions about a single point. A single subdivided line or bar for use over an entire chart is shown only when the chart is of such scale and projection that the scale varies a negligible amount over the chart, usually one of about 1:75,000 or larger. Since 1 minute of latitude is very nearly equal to 1 nautical mile, the latitude scale serves as an approximate graphic scale.
On most nautical charts the east and west borders are subdivided to facilitate distance measurements. On a Mercator chart the scale varies with the latitude. This is noticeable on a chart covering a relatively large distance in a north-south direction. On such a chart the border scale near the latitude in question should be used for measuring distances.
Of the various methods of indicating scale, the graphical method is normally available in some form on the chart. In addition, the scale is customarily stated on charts on which the scale does not change appreciably over the chart. The ways of expressing the scale of a chart are readily interchangeable. For instance, in a nautical mile there are about 72,913.39 inches. If the natural scale of a chart is 1:80,000, one inch of the chart represents 80,000 inches of the earth, or a little more than a mile. To find the exact amount, divide the scale by the number of inches in a mile, or 80,000/72,913.39 = 1.097. Thus, a scale of 1:80,000 is the same as a scale of 1.097 (or approximately 1.1) miles to an inch.