Sailing Navigation Secrets – Mark Your Nautical Chart With Magic Art!

Did you realize that you can make your chart easier to see, with less clutter? And that you can do this with simple office tools to save eye strain, make sailing navigation safer, and chart work easier? Use these easy steps for safer sailing navigation anywhere in the world.

Use “bright and bold” highlights to make vital chart symbols stand out.

Know exact locations of perfect anchorage spots before you arrive there.

Identify reliable depths compared to unreliable depths on your chart or plotter.

Tools You Will Need:


*Direction measuring instrument (parallel rules, Weems plotter).

*Yellow, orange, and blue highlighters.

*Colored blue, green, magenta pencils.

*Fine felt-tip pen.

*Scotch magic tape (permanent or removable.

Scan, Mark, and Protect Your Costly Charts

Master navigators always use a step by step process to plot their sailing routes, scan all along the sailing route for danger, and mark the most important spots like shoals, wrecks, emergency “pull-off-the-road” anchorages, and major aids to navigation that affect your sailing safety.

Follow these seven simple steps in the order shown anytime you plot a course for day sailing, cruising, or distance voyaging. It will keep you safe and you will have the confidence that you can see “at a glance” what lies ahead.

1. Use parallel rules or Weems plotter. Plot each course along your sailing route with light pressure with your pencil. Use light lines in this step. That way, if you need to erase, you can do this without effort or marring the chart.

2. Scan along each sailing course line to make sure the course does not cross over dangerous shoals or shallow depths. If it does, erase that leg and change it to a safer course or break it into two courses to avoid the hazard.

3. Use bright colored highlighters or colored pencils to make dangerous wrecks or important aids to navigation (buoys, lights, or landmarks) near the course.

4. Look for deep water pockets off the course line where you could anchor for rest or in an emergency. Make shoal depth contours stand out by tracing over them with a dark blue colored pencil (or similar marker).

5. Stay in water with a depth at least twice your draft. Coastal charts often show water depth contour lines in six foot increments that begin at 30 feet. That means the next depth contour would be 24 feet, then 18 feet, 12 feet, and 6 feet. Mark the outermost depth contour that’s equal to at least 2X your maximum draft.


If your draft is 5 feet, you should mark the 12 foot (or higher) contour curve. Set your depth sounder, GPS, or chart plotter alarm to trigger at that depth. This gives you time to turn the boat toward deeper water.

6. Check each course again for dangers. Recheck each plotted course to make sure the direction marked agrees with the direction indicated by your plotting tool. When satisfied, go to the final step.

7. Run a length of tape over the top of each of the light penciled course lines. Run your fingers over it several times to make sure it adheres to the chart surface. Lay a straight edge on top of the tape and darken in each course line with the felt tip marker. This makes your courses stand out in any light or weather condition.

Use your pencil to write the course in degrees magnet on top and the length of the course leg on the bottom of the line. When you label, write onto the tape. This protects the paper chart and the tape surface can be written on and erased as needed.

  1. Captain John’s Sailing Navigation Tip:
    How do you remove the tape when you’re done with the cruise? Use one of these two fast methods. Scotch makes a ‘removable magic tape’ brand. It isn’t as sticky but works well on a dry surface. Or, heat the edge of a blunt kitchen knife with a lighter. Run the knife along the tape and peel as you go. Keep the knife edge warm for best results.

Beware of Spotty Soundings!

Chart plotters fall far short of nautical charts when it comes to detailed soundings. Their small screen real estate forces the manufacturers to sacrifice detail in order to keep the screen uncluttered. This reason alone should be enough to convince any prudent skipper to carry navigational charts.

Scan your chart for signs of inconsistent or scattered soundings. Large gaps between soundings warn that this area hasn’t been surveyed well enough for safe sailing navigation. Keep clear of areas with spotty, inconsistent soundings to avoid grounding or hitting an underwater, uncharted obstruction.

Spoil areas (also called a fish haven or spoil bank) are where debris like garbage, old cars and trucks, and construction site material are dumped. Theses depths change all the time, so they will never be shown. Stay clear to stay safe!

Now you know the fast, easy way to get your chart set up for safe sailing navigation to save you time and effort once you go sailing.

Practical Navigation Tips for Bareboaters Pt. 3

Plan to Arrive Early

If you slow down and are not going to arrive early enough,

it’s time to start the engine. Don’t wait until it’s too late to

make up for lost progress. Your priority should be to

approach an anchorage safely in daylight rather than sailing

into the late afternoon or evening hours with the last breath

of wind. This is especially important when anchoring in an

unfamiliar area or having to secure a mooring buoy where

only a few moorings are available. At the chart briefing learn

about locations where arriving early is important.

Maintain Situational (and Positional) Awareness

This means not only knowing what is going on at the

moment, but being aware of what is about to happen.

Is leeway or adverse current taking your boat toward a

hazardous area?

Is the bearing to another boat in the distance holding steady

indicating the likelihood of a collision course?

Is reduced speed going to cause you to arrive at your

destination too late to enter the anchorage safely?

Is there a squall rapidly approaching your position?

Is that entire fleet of racing sailboats heading your way?

Are there fish trap buoys in your path?Be aware of what’s

going on around you right now and what the situation is

going to be in the next 5 to 10 minutes or even more. Keep

your mind ahead of the boat in both time and space so no

adverse circumstances can sneak up on you and take you

by surprise. Remember the old adage: “An excellent sailor

is one who uses his expert judgment to avoid situations that

require him to use his expert skill”.

Never Trust Just One Source of Navigational


This is doubly important when dealing with information from

electronic devices, even very good ones like GPS. These

devices can be very easy to use but it’s also very easy to

occasionally punch a wrong button. Cross check

navigational data by observing if the information makes

sense and by using other sources of information such as

depth soundings, hand bearings and dead reckoning

whenever possible.

Hold Off Entering Tricky Areas During Squall Activity

Fog can be a problem in non-tropical areas and squalls

often reduce visibility in the tropics. Both conditions require

more careful navigation than at other times. Even though

squalls can reduce visibility to almost nothing, at least they

don’t last long. Adjust sail appropriately and put off passage

in any narrow or tricky channels while the squall is still

blowing. If you’re in the harbor, let the squall blow over

before getting underway. If underway, stand off in open

water rather than trying to navigate any narrow channels

during the squall. You normally don’t have to wait long

before it becomes warm and clear again.

Consider Buddy-Boating or Flotilla Chartering

Being part of a group can add to your enjoyment and you

can learn from other sailors. If you’re not part of a yacht club

or other privately organized group, there are still ways to get

mutual support and enjoy the company of other charterers.

Some sailing club/schools offer group flotillas that you can

join as individuals, couples or even whole boat loads of

cruisers. Many cruises organized by sailing schools offer

sailing instruction and even certification during the trip.

Flotilla members can get to know each other before the trip,

and group organizers go along to make the cruise as

enjoyable as possible.

Major charter companies like The Moorings and Sunsail

offer flotilla group chartering opportunities where you join

the flotilla with your own charter boat. The flotilla is led by captains from the charter company who stay with the fleet and take care of any problems that might arise.

Chartering is a great way to experience the best cruising

locations around the world. It’s a lot easier getting to these

locations by chartering rather than sailing all the way from

home. It’s also cheaper and safer. It’s the only way if you

don’t have many months of free time. Just follow good

practices seamanship and navigation and you and your

shipmates will have a great time and will want to go back

again and again.