Navigating unknown waters safely is a skill that every mariner in the UAE should master. While advances in satellite positioning systems and mobile computing power have made it easier to know your location on the water, it is crucial to understand how to read a nautical chart. Even if you have a sophisticated chartplotter, knowing how to interpret paper charts is essential in case of electronic failure.

Understanding Water Depths

Water depths on a nautical chart are defined by numbers called soundings. Unlike on land, where profile rings show height above sea level, soundings on a chartplotter use “mean lower low tide,” which is the average depth of the two lowest tides. This gives skippers an idea of the minimum depth under their boat on any given day. Shallow underwater dangers are usually shown as crosses with a ring of dots outlining them on paper charts, while on chartplotters, they are defined by a bespoke icon.

Aids to Navigation in the UAE

Both paper charts and chartplotters show aids to navigation, which are systems of buoys and markers that help you navigate safely. In the UAE, it is essential to recognize the specific navigation marks used in local waters. Paper charts rely on difficult-to-recognize icons, while chartplotters display the same information in colorful, easily identified ways.

Understanding Scale

Paper charts are fixed scale, while a chartplotter can use any scale you want. Some chartplotters will zoom in and out automatically based on your speed, showing more detail when you are moving slowly and a broader view when you are moving faster.

Interpreting Symbols

Paper charts use a key to explain the symbols used on the chart. In contrast, chartplotters rely on the user moving a cursor on the screen to hover above the symbol and either automatically suggest what you are looking at or wait until the user clicks on the symbol to reveal what it is.

Obtaining Charts in the UAE

Electronic chartplotters are not a substitute for paper charts. Batteries can fail, and electronics can short out, but paper charts will generally outlive anything that needs a battery to power it. In the UAE, you can purchase paper charts from local vendors or online stores. For the techno-savvy skipper, you can buy a chartplotter and an annual subscription to electronic charts packages available on the market.


Safe navigation in the UAE waters requires a switched-on brain, a sharp set of eyes, and a thorough understanding of both electronic and paper nautical charts. Remember to stay updated with local regulations and guidelines, and always have a backup plan in case of electronic failure.