Home Anything Boating Blog How to Read a Nautical Chart

How to Read a Nautical Chart

How to Read a Nautical Chart
Read Time: 6 Minutes
Share this post

Navigating the open waters requires a deep understanding of the surrounding environment, and one of the essential tools for every sailor and boater is a nautical chart. A nautical chart is a map that shows the navigational and topographical features of the water body, including water depths, shorelines, buoys, and other navigational aids. Reading a nautical chart can be intimidating at first, but with a little practice, you can quickly learn how to navigate the waters safely and effectively. In this blog, we'll go over the essential elements of a nautical chart and provide you with tips on how to read them.


The first step in reading a nautical chart is to understand its scale and orientation. The chart's scale indicates the relationship between the distance on the chart and the actual distance on the water. For example, if the scale is 1:50,000, then one inch on the chart represents 50,000 inches on the water, or approximately 0.8 miles. Understanding the scale is essential for determining distances and planning your route.

The chart's orientation indicates the northern direction. Nautical charts typically use True North, which is based on the Earth's axis, as the reference point. However, the chart may also show Magnetic North, which is the direction that a compass needle points. Understanding the chart's orientation is critical for using a compass to plot a course accurately.


Nautical charts use a variety of symbols to convey information about the waterway. The legend on the chart provides an overview of what each symbol means. Some of the most common symbols include:

  • Contour lines: Contour lines indicate the depth of the water at a specific location. These lines connect points of equal depth and allow you to visualize the shape of the seabed. The contour interval, which is the difference in depth between two adjacent lines, is also indicated on the chart.
  • Shoreline: The shoreline is indicated by a solid line. This line shows the border between land and water and is an essential reference point for navigation.
  • Navigational aids: Navigational aids, such as buoys and beacons, are indicated by symbols on the chart. These symbols provide information about the type and location of the aid, and may also indicate the direction of the navigational channel.
  • Hazards: Hazards such as rocks, shoals, and wrecks are indicated by symbols on the chart. These symbols are designed to warn boaters of potential dangers and should be avoided at all costs.


One of the most critical pieces of information on a nautical chart is the water depth. The depth is usually measured in feet or fathoms (a fathom is six feet), and it's important to know how deep the water is to avoid running aground. The depths are indicated by contour lines, as previously mentioned, which show the shape of the seabed.

To read the depths on a nautical chart, you need to find the contour lines that correspond to the depth you're interested in. For example, if you want to know the depth in a particular area is 20 feet, look for the contour line that is labeled 20 feet. The closer the contour lines are together, the steeper the seabed's slope, which indicates a change in depth.

nautical chart


Navigating through a waterway requires identifying and avoiding any hazards. Hazards such as rocks, reefs, and wrecks are indicated by symbols on the nautical chart. These symbols are designed to warn boaters of potential dangers and should be avoided at all costs.

The hazard symbols on a nautical chart provide information about the nature and location of the hazard. For example, a rock is indicated by a black dot with a circle around it, while a wreck is indicated by a symbol that looks like a sunken ship. When planning a route, it's essential to take into account any hazards and plan a safe course around them.


Once you've identified the key information on the nautical chart, it's time to plan your course. You can use the chart to determine the distance between two points, the direction of your course, and any potential hazards or obstructions along the way. A helpful tool for planning your course is a pair of dividers, which allow you to measure distances on the chart accurately.

To plan your course, first, identify your starting and ending points on the chart. Then, use a straightedge to draw a line connecting the two points. You can then use the chart's scale and orientation to determine the distance and direction of your course. Remember to take into account any hazards or navigational aids along the way and plan your route accordingly.

reading nautical chart


When it comes to navigating the waters, having the right tools and equipment can make all the difference. One essential product for reading nautical charts is a chart plotter or GPS unit. This device uses satellite signals to provide accurate information about your location, course, and speed. It can also help you plot your route, track your progress, and avoid hazards like rocks and shoals. Additionally, a compass is another valuable tool for navigation. It can help you determine your heading and adjust your course if needed. A pair of binoculars can also come in handy for spotting landmarks, buoys, and other navigational aids. Finally, a marine VHF radio can be a critical tool for communicating with other boats and authorities in case of emergency. These products can greatly enhance your ability to navigate safely and effectively while out on the water.


Finally, it's important to stay alert while navigating with a nautical chart. Conditions on the water can change quickly, and it's important to adapt your plan as needed to ensure safe and successful navigation. Always keep an eye out for potential hazards, and be prepared to adjust your course if necessary.

Reading a nautical chart is an essential skill for safe and successful navigation on the water. By understanding the chart's scale and orientation, identifying key symbols and information, and planning your course accordingly, you can navigate with confidence. Remember to stay alert and adapt your plan as needed, and always prioritize safety while on the water. Happy boating!

Share this post
© 2024 Anything Boating. All Rights Reserved.