Try and See It My Way
Electronic cartography is breaking the paper-chart mold, but it may take a “beginner’s mind” to appreciate the results of 3D charting.
Have you ever seen a novice navigator align a paper chart to a boat’s heading, hoping that the new view will help to better correlate, say, a labyrinth of rocky Maine islands with the traditional cartography that holds the keys to where the dangers lurk? Witnessing that phenomenon many times during my years of teaching navigation is one reason I’m convinced that the chart-reading skills so many of us take for granted are far from intuitive. But many cling to those skills like crabs to clams, even as a new, more instinctive form of charting develops before our eyes.
As I’ve discussed here before (see “A Cruising Guide to Electronic Charts,” September 2010), navigation has changed a lot as we’ve adapted to the wonders, and foibles, of constant GPS plotting over an electronic chart. Many also have come to appreciate optional overlays like photo maps, points of interest, radar, weather, and A.I.S. However, the 3D charting every multifunction-display manufacturer now offers is undoubtedly the feature seen the most in advertisements but used the least in the real world. In fact, a significant majority of the generally knowledgeable navigators who post comments on my blog, Panbo.com, dismiss 3D as a marketing gimmick.
Change is hard, but I believe 3D is worth a serious try because the constraints of a top-down, two-dimensional chart view are more about the limitations of the printing press than what’s ideal when you’re trying to work your way through hazardous waters.
What takes 3D charting far beyond print is that your display computes an ever-changing point of view unique to your boat’s location and heading. The typical bird’s-eye image puts you high above your helm and slightly behind it, looking forward at charted information and overlays that have been shaped and shaded with bathymetric and topographic information to simulate how they might really look, though augmented in ways meant to help you avoid mishaps.
Underwater dangers may be boldly color coded, or lit navigation aids may graphically indicate their color and light-flash pattern so you can confirm them against reality without having to read their characteristics.
The vessel-centered, look-ahead point of view means that you get to see more detail immediately around you, where you need it, without losing sense of what’s coming up, as though you were viewing two or more zoom levels or chart scales at once.
Perhaps most important, though, is the way 3D makes chart and overlay data more naturally correlate with what you’re actually seeing from your cockpit as you move through the water so that it’s easier to make the correct connections.