Charts vs. Maps: A battle to the depth

Greetings loyal fans and anyone who ended up on this site while searching Google for information about the Navy (sorry about that).

It’s that time again. It’s time for you to ask me a question, and it’s time for me to give a completely unreliable answer. That’s right, it’s time to Ask Jack? (even though my name is not actually Jack – long story).

Before we get to our first question I want to remind (encourage… entice… compel… coerce… whatever) you to subscribe and share. Did you catch that? Subscribe and Share. SUBSCRIBE and SHARE! SUBSCRIBE AND SHARE!! SUBSCRIBE AND SHARE!! Do it now. The article will still be here when you get done.

Alright, now that you are subscribed to this blog and have shared it on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Myspace, Reddit, Snapchat, LinkedIn, etc. it’s time to increase your wisdom and knowledge (although not by much).

Today’s question comes from Doc in California. He asks: “Why are water maps called charts and not just water maps?”

This is an interesting question. I get the impression that Doc knows me personally. Only someone who knows me would know how much it irritates me when someone refers to a chart as a map. Did you ever see Star Trek II where Captain Kirk yells “Khaaaan!”  That’s me when someone says “map,” but I’m yelling, “Chaaaart!”

A bit of context is probably due. My rating (job specialty) in the Navy was Quartermaster (QM). Quartermasters specialize in maritime navigation. This is distinct from Army Quartermasters who specialize in logistics and supply procurement. In the Army one is a master of quarters (i.e. living accommodations). In the Navy one is a quarter (1/4) of a master (the captain). Mathematically this means five quartermasters in agreement outweigh the captain. As a result Quartermasters are prohibited from agreeing on anything.

Of course I’m lying. No one outweighs the captain. A ship’s captain is the world’s one remaining absolute authoritarian. But it is true that QMs rarely agree on the best way to do anything. If you ask 4 QMs, you will get 5 different opinions.

A Sailor plotting on a nautical chart.

One of the few things that all QMs agree on is that charts are not maps. Why? Because a chart is not the same thing as map.  A chart is designed to maintain a navigation plot. You are actually supposed to write and plot on a chart using a systematic method. A chart is an actual aid to navigation or ATON (you know it’s important if there’s an acronym for it).

You don’t plot on a map (I mean, I guess you can if you were so inclined, but it is not designed for that purpose). A map is a reference tool. It is designed to be referenced but not actually navigated upon.

Another difference between charts and maps is the method used to store them. A chart is folded in half twice and placed in a drawer in the chart table. A map is folded in an accordion pattern that, once unfolded, is impossible to ever properly refold, and placed in glove compartment after which it will never be taken out because nobody uses maps in cars anymore.

Superficially, of course, a chart is similar to a map, but is NEVER referred to as a map.  A truck is similar to a car but it is not referred to as a car.  A ship and boat are both watercraft but serve different purposes.  A Sailor and a Marine both serve in the Department of the Navy but only one has been lobotomized. It is possible for things to be similar but still be different enough to require different titles. A chart is a chart and a map is a map. You don’t have to agree with me, but that just makes you wrong.

In the Navy, Sailors tend to get really uptight about certain aspects of their ratings. Quartermasters don’t want their charts called maps. Culinary Specialists take it really personally when they get complaints about the food (and they get a lot of complaints because a Sailor will complain about anything, also sometimes the food sucks). Boatswain’s Mates get upset if you call the mooring lines ropes. Fire Controlmen have created an entire document explaining how everyone else on the ship exists just to support them. Hospital Corpsmen don’t appreciate it when you try to get them to falsify your medical record. ITs get kind of ticked off when you plug a flash drive into their network. Engineers are annoyed by topsiders leaving early, by having to help topsiders, by topsiders not helping engineers, and pretty much topsiders in general (engineers are a moody bunch).

Tess and Dad
Even my daughter can tell a chart from a map.

I remember on my first deployment when one of the ship’s generators dropped the load (crashed) causing the other online generator to carry the ship’s full electrical load. Immediately the Aegis Fire Controlmen were scurrying around the ship to try to salvage their systems. After the power had been restored, the Chief Electrical Tech was smoking a cigarette when one of the Fire Controlmen walked in, looked at the Chief and said, “Nice generators.” How did Chief reply? With years of experience, the recognized expert on the electrical plant, realizing that he must use tact and sound judgement, punched him in the face.

Just for the record this is not now (nor was it then) the approved method of mentoring a junior Sailor. However, it is worth noting that nobody again disparaged the generators (at least not within earshot of this Chief). We all learned an important lesson that day.

I’m not saying that I would punch Doc in the face for referring to charts as maps.  That’s just not my style.  Also I think Doc is bigger than me, so there’s an aspect of prudence there.  In a perfect world he would be publicly flogged and keel hauled, but we do not live in a perfect world.


If you have a question you’d like to ask just click this link to Write to Jack and I will be sure to answer it just as soon as I get around to it.  If you would like an accurate answer then you probably shouldn’t.

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