No paper charts. I was on a bridge the other day and was told, “Nope, no paper” in the rounded accent of a Romance language. “But why?” I asked. “Redundancy!” was the reply and I gave up at that point. Was there a sextant aboard, a stub of pencil or even a compass that didn’t require an electrical circuit? Who knows? And this was a fancy, gleaming, relatively new build. It got me thinking.

Back at my desk, I looked up the regulations on maritime charts. I wanted to know whether you had to keep a paper chart aboard. The first regulation I found (33 C.F.R. Sect. 164.30) set the threshold requirement that a vessel is required to have “marine charts, publications, and equipment” as required by the rest of the regulation. The next aspect of the regulation set out the specifics of the charts you need including their scale, updates, etc. And then the regulation identified the equipment you need aboard including a magnetic steering compass, a depth sounder and a whole bunch of other wizardry, some old, some new. Nothing, however, about “paper” charts.

I next looked at the case law to see if I could find a court that dealt with the issue of whether the law requires a paper chart or if a chart displayed on a screen will suffice. I couldn’t find any cases dealing with the issue.

And then I found a Coast Guard issued Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular # 01-16 (“NVIC”) and a Commandant Change Notice dated July 10, 2017. This isn’t binding legal authority, but it’s guidance as to how the Coast Guard views an issue. The NVIC’s title was “Use of Electronic Charts and Publications in Lieu of Paper Charts, Maps and Publications.” Bingo! The NVIC gives a great history as to the evolution of electronic charts and I got myself some education on the issue. (A link to the NVIC is available on my website.)

What I got from first reading the NVIC is that the Coast Guard seems okay with electronic charts and some electronic publications provided they meet their requirements. The Coast Guard recommends a back-up system which could be a “full folio of currently corrected paper charts” and the Coast Guard isn’t against the continued use of paper charts if that’s what you like. And if you can’t read a chart, you’re likely to end up in a position where you’ll be reading a salvage contract.

Think of the law of salvage as being your guardian angel of sorts. The salvor is rewarded for leaping into the breach to save what you deemed to be a loss. The salvor plucks value from the ocean and instead of a time and materials payment, society encourages this behavior with an award. The award is almost always many multiples of a time and materials charge, but that’s okay. We can’t really expect someone to risk their own life and equipment to save someone else’s property unless the pay-off makes you pucker, right? And when your marine insurer talks bad about the salvor’s endeavor, pause to consider the salvor sent his vessel and crew scores of miles offshore, maybe chartered an aircraft, sweated the details, plotted set and drift, and otherwise spent the last so-many tens of hours trying to recover YOUR property!

How much a salvor should receive for its endeavors takes into consideration a lot of factors. If the vessel is a derelict (as was the scenario I described), a salvor may expect a claim of fifty-percent (and maybe better) of the salved vessel’s value when it arrives back in port depending on the circumstances. (That’s the value as-is with the water damage, not the value prior to the salvage.) Indeed, when it comes to salvage awards some of the largest awards relate to derelict vessels likely because of the very high degree of peril. Without the salvor’s efforts, the argument goes, your vessel would’ve been lost to the sea.

A claim seeking title to a vessel as opposed to a salvage award would be a claim arising under the law of finds. However, and I’m speaking broadly here, you’d have to graffiti the stack with something like the message, “I’m giving up all right, title and interest in this pig!” for the law of finds to apply, and even that might not be sufficient. In other words, to trigger a claim under the law of finds where the courts apply a “finders-keepers” wisdom, you typically have to show the vessel’s owner expressly relinquished title to the vessel. And proving an owner abandoned title to a vessel is very difficult.

In a faraway Bahamian bar, rolling a bottle of St. Pauli Girl between his palms, a pilot once told me, “How it is, if something goes wrong I’m going to keep flying her right into the ground.” Me? Maybe I haven’t seen a sufficient stack of wind atop serious sea, but like that pilot I don’t ever see myself abandoning ship.

Underway and making way. ■

John K. Fulweiler, Esq. is a Proctor-in-Admiralty representing individuals and small businesses in maritime matters including personal injury claims throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and with his office in Newport, Rhode Island. He can be reached at 1-800-383-MAYDAY (6293) or, or visit his website at

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