If you are going on a boating expedition without a skipper, one of the most vital skills that you will need is navigation. Part of that entails being able to read nautical charts. This is quite a bit different than reading a standard land map. The information included has a different focus and a unique presentation.
You can get detailed information about nautical charts by visiting this link at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the agency in charge of maintaining accurate charts for USA coastlines as well as the Great Lakes.
But if you are simply looking for some basic how-to information and tips for reading the nautical charts, the following should get you started.
Part of the challenge of reading nautical charts is understanding what they are showing you, but the other part is planning ahead so that you will have meaningful data to compare with your real-life surroundings so that you can understand your location relative to what you see in the chart as you are sailing.
So when you are studying your charts, you should begin by noting the position from which you will start your voyage.
Next, you should begin to plot a course. Pay close attention not just to the shape of the coastline, but also information on the depth of water as well as various known obstructions which might impede your way. Keep in mind that some of these obstructions may be underwater.
Get another piece of paper on which you can take notes. Note down not only possible hazards, but also visual cues in your environment that you can look for while you are out on the water. These will help you to understand your position relative to your nautical charts. Buoys and markers are especially helpful for this purpose.
One more important consideration is weather. While this is also important while you are traveling on land, it is much more crucial while you are traveling on the water. Changes in the weather can have an impact on sea conditions which could cause you to need to alter your route. You should check this information before you start planning your route in the first place, and consider having some contingency plans based on possible changes in the weather in place for your voyage. You should of course only venture out on the water if you believe that conditions will be safe.
Learning to read nautical charts takes time, research and effort. But once you get the hang of it, you will find that it gets easier and easier. Doing so is essential to stay safe on your boating trips.