Canadian chart catalogue

Having decided that part of this summer’s cruising program on Lunacy will involve a two-week jaunt over to Nova Scotia and back, it dawned on me that I needed to make sure I actually have charts for Nova Scotia. In the previous century, which really wasn’t that long ago, this would have been a simple process. I would consult my ever-growing stack of paper charts, discover I had no relevant charts, and then call the Armchair Sailor in Newport. These people were personally known to me, and I was known to them. I would say: “Hi! Howzit going? I’m sailing to Nova Scotia. I need coverage from Yarmouth to Halifax.” And two days later my charts would arrive in the mail.

No fuss, no muss. Alas, the Armchair Sailor is no longer, a victim of the Internet Revolution, and procuring charts is no longer so easy.

This is how the process runs now:

Step 1: Check the current inventory. Nope. No paper charts, and the chart card in my antique (read 7-year-old) Raymarine A65 chartplotter does not cover any part of Canada. But here! That Navionics chart app I purchased for my iPad does include Nova Scotia and indeed all of Canada.

Question: Is this all I need? Answer: Say what? I have never successfully navigated anywhere on my iPad, I can’t really read its screen in daylight, and its GPS receiver (if it has one; I’m still not really sure about that) can’t work belowdeck.

Yes, I know some people navigate exclusively on iPads now. But we know what happens to them! Take, for example, the sad story of John Berg, who lost his Nordic 40 Seaquel on the coast of Hawaii just last month. He was running an iPad with iNavX software, was approaching a waypoint outside a harbor, and… Whoa! All of a sudden the tablet screen was taken over by Apple, who wanted him to log into FaceTime and iCloud for some reason. No matter what he tried he couldn’t clear the screen, and next thing you know…

Seaquel aground

He’s up on the reef! Poor Seaquel in extremis

Seaquel destroyed

And they couldn’t get her off, so she was destroyed by earth-moving equipment and hauled off to the dump. Apparently, the boat was also partly looted by locals beforehand

No sir! I want paper charts, plus I want a Canadian chart card for my plotter, and maybe along the way I’ll practice with that iPad thing, which I have never understood, because there are no written instructions for it, and the only way to figure out how it works is through a long tedious process of trial and error.

Step 2: To figure out what paper charts I need I google “Canadian charts” and quickly find the webpage of the Canadian Hydrographic Service. Clicking on “Paper Charts” I am led in a few more mouse clicks to a PDF chart catalogue (see image up top, which actually represents only a tiny portion of the catalogue) that is very hard to read on a computer screen. After much zooming in and out and rotating this way and that, I at last extract the numbers for the eight paper charts I would like to have onboard for my cruise.

Step 3: Actually buying the charts at first looks easy. I press the How To Purchase button on the CHS paper-chart page and I’m led to a dealer-locator function that tells me the nearest dealer to me is the West Marine store in Seabrook, New Hampshire, just a few miles down the road from my home.

Brilliant! I call them up, read them my list of chart numbers, and am put on hold. Many long minutes later I am told the store has no Canadian charts of any description and that I should instead call this particular number at West Marine HQ and they will print out the charts for me and send them on post haste.

OK. That doesn’t sound so bad. So I call that magic number, again read out my list of chart numbers, and am again put on hold. Many long minutes later I am told West Marine doesn’t really sell Canadian charts, has no ability to print out charts of any description, and that what I really need to do is check out Bluewater Books & Charts in Ft. Lauderdale.

Step 4: I am familiar with Bluewater Books. They are the people who bought the Armchair Sailor in Newport and later closed it down. I have tried to buy charts from them before, with no success, so now I am getting wary. I check their website and see they do indeed purport to sell the charts in question, but that delivery for some of them may be delayed, which suggests an inventory problem.

Best then to call and see what the situation is. So I do that and, even before I get to read out my chart numbers, I am put on hold.

Many long minutes later I am still on hold, listening to elevator music. The people on the other end still have no idea why I’m calling. This, I remember, is what happened last time, and that I never got anyone to ever help me on the phone. So I press zero a few times, trying to get back to a live person.

That doesn’t work, so I figure I might as well load a shopping basket on the website while I wait. This turns out to be incredibly difficult. The system is very balky and cumbersome, there are many steps involved in locating and depositing each chart in my virtual basket, and in all it takes about 20 minutes to complete the job.

Meanwhile, I am still on hold on the phone. I hang up, dial the number again, and I am once again put on hold before I can explain that I have already been on hold for at least half an hour.

What the hell. Let’s just buy this stuff and see what happens. So I attempt to buy the eight charts I have placed in my basket, and at the end of the process I am stuck on a frozen page, with no acknowledgement that I have purchased anything. I know better than to press Buy again, so I wait about an hour to see if an e-mail confirmation comes through. Nothing comes, so I have to assume I have not purchased the charts.

Step 5: I resolve never again to buy anything from Bluewater Books for as long as I live and figure I might as well try Boxell’s Chandlery in Boston. Many moons ago I bought charts from them, and they were reliable, knowledgeable, and courteous. I find their website online, and though they do claim to have Canadian charts, and there is a mechanism for buying them online, I note the online shopping function looks positively neolithic and the site hasn’t been updated in seven years. So I dial their phone number to do a reality check. No answer. The phone rings forever, and there isn’t even voice-mail. I dial several more times over the course of the day. Same result.

Step 6: Having now spent a few hours on the problem without getting anywhere, I give up for the day. The next morning, however, I get a promotional e-mail from Landfall Navigation and am reminded by this that they too sell charts. I check their website and find a complete list of Canadian charts with no warnings about delivery delays.

I try loading a basket with my eight paper charts. It is a relatively easy process, and when I click Buy at the end I actually get an acknowledgement. Thirty seconds later another acknowledgement appears in my e-mail box.

Greatly heartened by this, I search their site to see if they have Canadian chart cards for my A65 plotter. Yes, they do! So I plop that in another shopping basket, along with a Canadian tide-table book and a copy of the 2014 Nautical Almanac, press Buy again, and again receive appropriate acknowledgements.

Step 7: Four days later I have received no follow-up notice from Landfall telling me my items have shipped, so (with some trepidation) I try calling them on the phone. Bingo! I’m talking to a human within seconds, and they don’t put me on hold. What a thrill that is.

What I learn is that three of my paper charts, the tide tables, and the almanac are not in stock and have been back-ordered. Hopefully they’ll be ready to ship in five days. Meanwhile, the chart card and five paper charts are good to go.

“Will I have everything within 3 weeks?” I ask, as this is when I plan to leave.

“You should,” comes the answer.

So here I am, keeping my fingers crossed.

A65 chartplotter

The old Raymarine A65. I’m quite fond of mine actually, as the controls really are pretty intuitive, and I rarely need to consult the manual, which does actually exist. I have mine mounted below, simply because there really is no room for it in Lunacy’s cockpit. In the cockpit I just keep a paper chart handy and eyeball stuff with that, the old-fashioned way

iPad nav display

An iPad nav display. It looks like a plotter, but isn’t. It comes with no instructions, and the software is often updated, so functions often change, which means sometimes you have to figure out how to use it all over again. And apparently you don’t have control of what’s on the screen; Apple does

During this arduous quest, I was of course asking myself, do I really need all this stuff? And I decided I do. I want it all–the paper charts, my chartplotter, and of course I’ll take the iPad and its charts. I might go without the plotter, if push came to shove and for some reason that card I bought doesn’t actually work, but I’d feel very uncomfortable going without paper charts.

As for poor John Berg, former owner of Seaquel, I should give you a little more background on him. He really does rely on electronics to navigate, as he is blind. Evidently all his electronics are rigged to talk to him. He did have one sighted crew member on board when he lost the boat, but apparently what happened was the two of them got lost in tunnel-vision trying to clear the iPad screen.

John Berg

Mr. Berg, though blind, has been cruising his boat for 14 years and is highly experienced. To his credit, he takes complete responsibility for what happened to Seaquel

I should note, too, that Berg evidently wasn’t relying solely on his iPad. The story in Latitude 38 I linked to above says there was also a chartplotter onboard displaying NOAA charts, but these, for reasons not specified, “proved inadequate.”

I don’t know about you, but I’d sure like to know what that means.

PS: Berg isn’t the only one to have lost a boat due to iPad reliance. Please remember the story of the Swan 48 Wolfhound, which was abandoned (at least in part) due to a lack of iPad battery power.

PPS: The modern retail experience–and this is true of everything, not just charts–truly does suck. I could prove this by describing all I had to go through to purchase my current iPad, but that would be cruel and unusual punishment. I can only pray that this is only a phase we’re going through and that someday retailers will rediscover the concept of customer service.

PPPS: I nearly forgot to mention–I assume the trick to avoiding Berg’s fate iPad-wise is to turn on Airplane Mode while navigating so Apple can’t contact you. But would this also turn off the iPad’s GPS? Can anyone tell me that?

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24 Responses
  1. Anonymous

    Honestly, Charlie, I haven’t pulled out a paper chart in nearly three years since I got my iPad…and you can guess how many landfalls that is. I am incredibly impressed with its reliability and accuracy. I run the same app on my iPhone for back up. Actually both are back up. I still carry paper charts, but I haven’t had to use them.
    i’ll check whether the GPS runs in airplane mode, but I’ve never had a problem with the iPad being “taken over by Apple.”
    Andy Burton

  2. Charles Doane

    Man, I have to figure out how to disable this Anonymous thing on these comments here.

    Yes, I am old. Sometimes I enjoy it. I admit I’m Luddite, but I do eventually get the hang of new technology. Of course, by then it’s old technology.

    Andy: Glad you’re iPad is working well for you. I’ll get there eventually. But I suspect Mr. Berg also had many iPad miles under his belt prior to last month. I am confident, however, you would not be caught out like him. For one thing, you can see.

    Let me know, too, about the GPS running in Airplane Mode. And how you figure out if your iPad has GPS. The people who sold me mine promised it did, but I find nothing in any systems file anywhere about any GPS receiver or its status. But then, I’ve also had to return the iPad twice for replacements, due to defects, so something may have been lost in the translation.

  3. Kevin from

    If you’ve got an iPad with cellular capability it has assisted GPS with GLONASS built in (per Apple’s spec page). You do NOT need to have the cellular data on to use the GPS. If you have a WiFi only iPad, you don’t have GPS and need an external antenna.

    We’ve used our iPad 2 (w/ cellular) and Navionics for coastal cruising the past two years and like it. However, you’re right about the screen being difficult to see in sunny conditions and they aren’t at all weatherproof for snotty seas.

  4. Matt

    Ahh, the good ol’ Canadian Hydrographic Service….
    The CHS’s Hydrographic Products and Services program costs about $27M a year. (77 cents per capita.) We Canucks are too cheap to pay that 77 cents out of our taxes, so we make the CHS spend much of its manpower on trying to find ways to get some of that back from chart-using boaters. (Last I checked, they were bringing in about $3.6M.) So the electronic charts are all really expensive and S-63 DRM locked, which means that many people can’t afford updated sets (or have trouble opening them) and so stick with outdated ones far longer than they should, which means… more emergency work for the Coast Guard and its already stretched budget.
    You can still find paper charts locally around here; most marine towns still have at least one chandlery that has the CHS paper charts in stock for everything within a couple hundred miles. But trying to get the charts before you actually get there? Not easy.

  5. Matt

    Let me know, too, about the GPS running in Airplane Mode. And how you figure out if your iPad has GPS.

    The GPS receiver is built into the same chip as the cellular modem. If yours has 3G/4G/whatever cell capability, it has GPS.
    “Airplane mode” powers down that entire chip, including the GPS receiver. If you turn off cellular data and wifi, the GPS will remain enabled.

  6. Anonymous

    Your article makes me think, it’s even more important to become familiar with electronic charting. I did have my ipad2 crash in a tricky spot off Portland last season. I was running an external Garmin Glo antenna and Garmin Bluechart app. I’m not sure why it crashed! But I think I have it figured out and know what to do if it does again. But I had my tried and true old Garmin chartplotter as my main means of Nav., old paper as back up. Made me a little nervous, though.

    This season, I moved the old paper off the boat. All outdated and dog eared. This season, I’ve backed up the Ipad-back up, with an Iphone running the free Navionics app(thanks Panbo). Three separate devices with separate power supplies and different chart software. I’ll also sneak the app on my wifes iphone. I feel good again!

    But I’m a New England sailor. If I were heading to Canada and beyond, I figure I may have to get paper, for lack of E-chart coverage.

    Your scenario makes me realize, like my local newspaper(I can’t get anymore), paper charts may not be that easy to find.

    Today, I guess I’d look for better e-chart coverage of Canada etc, and then fill in with back up paper,… if I can get it.

  7. Anonymous

    I use the IPAd with a small GPS that is connected by bluetooth to the IPAD. it works well without requiring any cellphone coverage. It was about $100 – DUAL Universal GPS Receiver.
    Chuck Adams
    Freedom II

  8. Don Joyce

    two points. (1) I’ve had good luck getting Canadian electronic charts from (2) The Garmin Blue Chart App for my iPad is fantastic. I use a BadElf GPS receiver with the iPad that appears better than the internal “cellular assisted” GPS.

  9. Anonymous

    Charlie- try next time. Local chandlery, great service, have everything you need in stock. They ship to US all the time, and know how to do it right. No, I don’t work for them, or get any benefit from this!
    Also – if you are coming to Halifax area, I have a nice mooring that I’d be happy to let you use if needed. It’s very solid, well protected. I’ll contact you separately on that if you like so we can have a private conversation.

    BG – halifax.

  10. Anonymous

    How many contributors here actually get out of their armchairs and even know the difference between traditional methods and modern gadgetry…. I wonder… Common sense is the key…
    I can hardly imagine a scenario where when in a pickle that all would be tempted to congregate arround the radar unless they were all complete imbeciles….

  11. tod engelskirchen

    I use a Garmin Chart plotter and, when I go to Canada, I use a Canadian SD Card with Canadian charts. Garmin also has an SD card which should work. I carry both electronic (Chart plotter and Coastal Explorer on a laptop) and paper charts which, in a pinch I could use with one of my battery powered hand held GPS units to get out of trouble. And yes, I do leave my armchair.

  12. Wally Moran

    Enjoyable rant Charlie – for Canadian goodies, I can recommend Nautical Mind in Toronto as another source. I’m with you on the paper thing – I don’t have an iPad and while I might use one for planning, as I use my laptop, I want a dependable chartplotter in the cockpit, and paper backing it up. All this whining about how much room paper takes up is just that – whining. When the day comes that those paper charts are needed by these people, I hope the gods smile on them in their time of need so they get through whatever trouble is befalling them because of their lack of foresight.

  13. Ken Heaton

    I’ll second the recommendation for the Binnacle in Halifax. I’m another happy customer. You can order through their USA site. Charts are here:

    I do pretty much all my navigation electronically but I still have at least small scale charts on board for long trips. I have large scale charts for any area we go to regularly. If you decide to come the rest of the way past Halifax to Cape Breton and the Bras d’Or Lakes have a look at this:

  14. Anonymous

    Ever tried printing the NOAH charts on a printer? I downloaded tons of charts while at a friends house so I could have them if needed. They print out in sections, then I encase them in plastic sleeves because the ink runs when wet. Not easy to accomplish on a boat, but doable and I have them when needed.

  15. Anonymous

    We’ve sailed thousands of miles with iNavx starting when app first came out. Flawless so far. We also carry paper and second IPad as back-up. Marja Vance

  16. Anonymous

    Ever tried printing the NOAH charts on a printer? I downloaded tons of charts while at a friends house so I could have them if needed. They print out in sections, then I encase them in plastic sleeves because the ink runs when wet. Not easy to accomplish on a boat, but doable and I have them when needed.

    A few years ago, I did. Doing CAD design, I used a printer a lot, then.

    But I haven’t renewed the ink cartridges in my printer in about 2 years(probably history now). Today, almost all my CAD files stay digital. They move back and forth in PDF format, and a tablet or even smart phone is replacing much of that paper, even on construction sites.

    I have no problem with paper charts, I used them for decades. The problem, as this article points out, paper charts aren’t as easy to find. We had a local supplier in town. Gone.

    With this trend to digital throughout media, I can’t see paper chart access improving.

  17. Charles Doane

    Hey guys: Thanks for all this great feedback, and thanks especially for the hospitality offers. I’ve always said Canadians are NPOE (Nicest People On Earth). Unfortunately, I don’t anticipate having time to get to Halifax. My goal is to explore Lunenburg and Mahone Bay a bit.

    I do expect to get better at using my iPad for navigation, and the tips re the GPS are especially valuable for this. But seriously, no matter how good I get with it, I still expect to refer to paper charts often. They way I work now I do all my strategic thinking looking at paper charts and my tactical thinking looking at electronic charts. And I always check them against each other in the process. In some areas (see my posts on cruising the Spanish Virgins winter before last) there are big discrepancies.

    And yes, I am such a Luddite that I also carry a sextant and about every 15 years or so I take it out and remember how to use it.

    Unfortunately, I do expect it will get harder to buy paper charts going forward. The good news for now is that it looks like Landfall will get me all my stuff on time. To get electronic Canadian charts for my A65, however, I need to use Navionics Plus and load them on to a card myself with my computer. From what I see, that looks relatively straightforward. Has anyone had problems with it? charlie

  18. Anonymous

    One could spend a summer around Lunenburg and Mahone Bay and still know one hasn’t experienced it all. Have fun!


  19. James Eaton - s/v Pendragon (A

    If you turn on airplane mode, you will turn OFF all connectivity including the GPS.
    It is possible to then enable both bluetooth and WIFI. If you have a WIFI signal, you could get position data from it. You could also connect an external GPS via bluetooth such as

  20. James Eaton - s/v Pendragon (A

    If you turn on airplane mode, you will turn OFF all connectivity including the GPS.
    It is possible to then enable both bluetooth and WIFI. If you have a WIFI signal, you could get position data from it. You could also connect an external GPS via bluetooth such as

  21. Rob Snelling

    I know this is very late for your topic, but if you EVER need anything such as accurate charts, guides, etc, the following link will give you people who send charts, etc all over the world, in an expedited manner.

    I have no affiliation with the store; they’ve been very good to me for many years, and wonderful to deal with
    Rob Snelling

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