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Paper Charts. Do I need to carry a paper chart aboard if I have a chart plotter?

No paper charts. I was on a bridge the other day and was told: "Nope, no paper" in the rounded accent of a Romance language. "But why?" I asked. "Redundancy!" was the reply and I gave up at that point. Was there a sextant aboard, a stub of pencil or even a compass that didn't require an electrical circuit? Who knows. And this was a fancy, gleaming relatively new build. It got me thinking.

Back at my desk, I looked up the regulations on maritime charts. I wanted to know whether you had to keep a paper chart aboard. The first regulation I found (33 C.F.R. Sect. 164.30) set the threshold requirement that a vessel is required to have "marine charts, publications, and equipment" as required by the rest of the regulation. I turned the page and read the rest of the regulation. The next aspect of the regulation set out the specifics of the charts you needed including their scale, updates, etc. And then the regulation identified the equipment you need aboard including a magnetic steering compass, a depth sounder and a whole bunch of other wizardry some old, some new. Nothing, however, about "paper" charts.

I next looked at the case law to see if I could find a court that dealt with the issue of whether the law requires a paper chart or will a chart displayed on a screen suffice. I couldn't find any cases dealing with the issue.

And then I found a Coast Guard issued Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular # 01-16 ("NVIC") and a Commandant Change Notice dated July 10, 2017. This isn't law, but it's guidance as to how the Coast Guard views an issue. The NVIC's title was "Use of Electronic Charts and Publications in Lieu of Paper Charts, Maps and Publications." Bingo! The NVIC gives a great history as to the evolution of electronic charts and I got myself some education on the issue. (A link to the NVIC is available on my website.) What I got from first reading the NVIC is that the Coast Guard seems okay with electronic charts and some electronic publications provided they meet their requirements. The Coast Guard recommends a back-up system which could be a "full folio of currently corrected paper charts" and the Coast Guard isn't against the continued use of paper charts if that's what you like.

Me? I'm keeping a paper chart handy. The flaw in this redundancy reasoning is that all these electronic charts rely (to my knowledge) on a GPS signal. When that signal shuts off or hiccups, it'll be interesting how the fleet finds its way home. The law, in my opinion, should require paper charts be aboard. What say you? Let me know.

Underway and making way.

John K. Fulweiler, Esq. is a Proctor-in-Admiralty representing individuals and small businesses in maritime matters including personal injury claims throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and with his office in Newport, Rhode Island. He can be reached at 1-800-383-MAYDAY (6293) or visit his website at

Here's the link to the NVIC

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