Charts are our best navigation tools. They are basically maps of the water we paddle and they give us information about depth, direction of currents, busy boating channels, repairs to pin-point our location, and details about shore lines so we can decide where we’ll be able to land. They also tell us about distances so we can calculate our speed and the time it will take us to get somewhere.

Looking at and understanding a chart prior to a trip could ultimately give us a chance to imagine realistically where we are heading.

Looking at the bigger picture, a chart also gives us our position on earth (latitude and longitude). There are many points to cover in order to get the best out of those great “water maps” called Charts.


Since a chart can represent the whole Vancouver Island or just the area of Cowichan Bay, we need a unit of measurement to get a realistic view of distances shown on the chart. This is the scale, meaning that one unit of distance on the chart equals one unit of distance in the real world.

So if we have a scale of 1:20 000 and we take a pen, put it on the chart, 1 pen on the chart is equal to 20 000 pens in the real world.

For a scale of 1:40 000, 1 pen on the chart is equal to 40 000 pens in the real world.

So a chart with a scale of 1:500 000 could cover Vancouver Island.

And a chart with a scale of 1:5 000 could cover Cowichan Bay.

So now we know where we are and what distances we are looking at, so we can find out how long it will take us to go from one point to another. Distances are also shown by a graph and the units are kilometers and nautical miles.

Chart scales vary from 1:5 000 (called large scale, and gives us lots of detail but covers a small area of water), to 1: 500 000 (called small scale, and gives us little detail but covers a huge area of water) with many sizes in between of course.

As kayakers, we want to get as many details as we can but we also want a chart that will cover a fairly wide area (or we will need 3 different charts for a two hour paddle). So we are looking at a compromise;1:40 000 is a pretty good one. It still gives us a lot of information and we don’t have to carry 5 charts for a day-paddle.


For a better visual understanding, there are 6 colours:

  • Beige - is the land that never gets covered by salt water.
  • Green- is the intertidal zone, the area that gets covered and uncovered with the movement of the tide.
  • Blue - water 10 meters or less in depth, the lighter shade of blue represents shallower water.
  • White – for deep water (10 meters and deeper).
  • Black – is reserved for text and symbols.
  • Magenta – is the colour of the compass rose and of some text and symbols that require special attention.


Symbols and their meaning used to be printed on the back of the charts; however, overtime we ended up with so many of them that a book was needed. And so was born Chart 1, a book detailing symbols, abbreviations and terms found on charts.

We will be spending some time on Chart 1 during the course. It is an easy book to use and we will get to know fairly fast the symbols we encounter most often.

Charts are designed for the use of boats in general, so what do you think, as kayakers, will be of interest to us?

Have a look at this chart of Portland Island:

There is a lot of info, colors, abbreviations, writing, and much much more once we open Chart 1 and do some research.
Try to figure out where we could land a kayak, what symbols are common; do you see anything that could put up with currents? What is getting your attention, what do you think it represents in the real world?

How far is Royal Cove from Princess Bay, in nautical miles or in meters?

Walking distance?

Paddling distance?

What is the scale of that chart?

When going paddling in a new area, a chart is priceless. Folded in a waterproof chart case in front of you on the deck, it gives you fixed points to find your position.
It shows you where you came from, where you are heading, and what you’ll find on your route.
It also tells you where to expect marine traffic so you can stay away from it.
Charts are one of the main tools for navigation. For kayakers, navigation is a fairly tricky skill to develop. There are two main ways of keeping track of your whereabouts:


Piloting is like driving and reading the street names as you pass them. I just went by that island, there is a buoy in front of me, and on the other side of the bay I can see a marina, so here I am. Piloting works very well in coastal areas with lots of landmarks to look at.


Dead reckoning is a way of guessing your position from a past location by taking into account your speed, the time that passed by, and your paddling direction.

It is an educated guess that can become quite accurate with experience and training and is needed in foggy conditions, when paddling at night or away from the coast. It is not part of the Paddle Canada Level 1 course but we still do a bit of dead reckoning when we paddle.

From your point of departure to your first rest area, you will get an idea of how fast you are paddling, and how far you can go before turning back. That is a simple method, easy to master, but never the less indispensable.

To finish this chapter, as kayakers we need to navigate by our own means, since there won’t be any signs on the water to tell us when to turn or where the marina is. In order to do that, unless we know the area very well, we will need a chart to keep track of our position, direction, and speed.

Charts are a simple tool to use when paddling in coastal areas; so getting lost or never finding a beach to stop and take a rest is unlikely.

We will see during the course how to find the chart that covers the area we are planning to go paddling in, the different scales available, and where to buy them.