Sunday, November 24, 2019

Navigator's Library for Extended Ocean Voyaging

Outfitting a boat for an ocean voyage, or more to the point, for extended voyaging, calls for putting together a library of resources. Many of the basic publications needed are required by law for certified commercial vessels, but that is not the guideline we apply here. Some of these books are better known than others. We assume that at least one American port is involved, and that multiple other nations will be visited as well. This library would be the same for power or sailing vessels; large or small.

Here we just make a list of sources and short descriptions. Many we can obtain as PDF files, which in turn can be stored in a tablet or computer in an ebook reader such as Kindle, ADE Reader, or Apple Books. This has the advantage of organizing the pubs, with an opportunity to add bookmarks, highlights, and annotations. (This procedure of saving references and manuals deserves another short note at some point.)

If we had to buy all of these in print it would be very expensive and take up a lot of weight and space on the vessel. Luckily most are free or inexpensive PDF documents. We also mention here some of our own publications that help with the use of these official references. 

Most of these publications have annual updates, but having any edition of each is step one. In some cases the updates are few and often cover technical details that will not affect small craft navigation.


This is a topic on its own, which we address several places. There are paper charts and electronic charts. These days it is likely we carry some combination of both.

Navigation Rules Handbook
This is without doubt the most important book in navigation, which is easy to prove. A study of court cases involving collisions shows that every collision involves the violation of at least one Rule from this book by both vessels involved. In short, know and obey the rules and you will not be in a collision. This also applies to collisions with things (allisions), such as docks and land! The USCG tacked on the name "Handbook" when then expanded their version to not just include US and International Rules, but also this pub now includes full copies of all the related or referenced documents. The above link is to the official USCG PDF, which is not interactive and does not even have a table of contents. You might find the version we use in class more convenient as it has links and bookmarks, and is set up to display the correct facing pages.  Or even better, copy this html page to your desktop and use it. We call this one the Pocket NavRules Handbook, which highlights the differences between US Inland and International Rules. The Canadians have their own inland rules, called Canadian Modifications.  We strongly recommend carrying a printed copy of the nav rules on board for study and reference as needed.

Chart No. 1
Covers chart symbols used on both US and international paper charts as well as the international standards for ENC echart symbols. This book might not be needed on a daily basis for experienced navigators, but there could be a crucial question to answer about a new harbor or bay, where this could save the day. Remember the chart symbols are quite literal (two slightly different ones could have meanings quite different) and the symbols are packed full of detail.

US Coast Pilots
The basic description of these volumes is they contain the crucial information needed for navigation that is not on the nautical charts. These are required reading for navigation in US coastal waters. There are 9 volumes. Note there are several sections covering any one area, all of which should be skimmed for waters covered. And there are several general information sections which are valuable for any region.  Plus weather stats in the appendix that help with planning. Our standing suggestion to those not familiar with the books is to get the one for your own waters, and see how much you learn. We have extensive training and practice exercises on the use of Coast Pilots in our text on Inland and Coastal Navigation: For Power and Sailing Vessels.

Sailing Directions Enroute
These are the US produced counterparts of the US Coast Pilots for international waters. When you go to the source page, click the graphic index link (Sailing Directions Limits Graphic) to find the right volumes you need. These books include much of the legal details needed for entering international ports as well as the weather and navigation information. Unfortunately, the charts they list are the NGA charts that are way outdated. Some are still available from NOAA print on demand dealers, but they are 20 to 30 years old. In essence, you have to use the information in these sailing directions to update these old charts if you use them, or get new charts from other agencies.

Planning Guides
These are supplements to the US Sailing Directions. They are organized by countries along the borders of oceans covered. There is some overlap with information. The Guide info is more compacted, which offers quick access to key information and contacts, but then we need to refer to the Sailing Directions for full details.

US Light Lists
These books list all aids to navigation in US waters such as buoys, lights, daymarks, racons, and so on. They give lat lon, and crucial details of the aid, such as range, height, and brightness of lights, which is not always on the charts, or maybe chart info is outdated. Charts can be every few years; Light Lists are annual. Fundamental for navigation at night and very often valuable in the day. Like the Coast Pilots, these are must-have pubs. There are introductory and general sections with much valuable information on navigation with lights.

International Light Lists
These are the NGA international counterparts of the US Light Lists. Same description, content, and value as listed above for US Light Lists. The world in covered in 7 volumes.

International Tide Tables
The US publishes tide tables for many international stations, compiled in the above book. Note this is a unique link. I do not know where else these can be found as full-book PDFs. See also the tides and currents display of OpenCPN. It includes a version of xtides that covers international waters.

See these updated articles on tides and currents and how we access them and make our own annual tables since they discontinued the official annual tables in 2020 along with all the data in both Tables 2. NOAA also since 2020 no longer provides any international tide or current data.

International Current Tables
This is same reference as for the international tides, but there are not nearly as many international current stations included. Best source for these will be the hydrographic offices of the nations you care about. There is a list of members with links at the IHO. See also the tides and currents display of OpenCPN. It includes a version of xtides that covers international waters.

Worldwide Marine Radiofacsimile Broadcast Schedules
This is a valuable PDF resource even for those not using HF fax. First, it shows what nations actually make real weather maps that can be used to test the model forecasts, but buried in the back of this as an appendix is the best description on how to use the NWS FTPmail program for direct email request of NWS products. The contents have changed over the years, but the file name has not, consequently we can always find this with a google search on "rfax.pdf."

Radio Navigational Aids, Pub 110
Lists times and frequencies of radio broadcasts for weather, time tics, and safety information, plus general notes on radio navigation features, including VHF channel usage in various countries, plus frequencies that can be used to request medical advice.  This is where we would find the times of HF voice weather broadcasts, for example, but we would need the previous reference (rfax.pdf) for the radiofax info.

Pilot Charts
There is one chart for each ocean for each month as PDF images. They include tremendous information such as average wind, pressures, currents, magnetic variation, storm likelihood, fog, ice, great circle routes and more. A good overview of the oceans covered. Even better are the RNC echart versions available at Note that for climatic winds we are better off using the wind data from COGOW, which is based on actual satellite measurements.

International Code of Signals, Pub 102
If all of your radios are working fine, and you are communicating with a vessel who understands your language, then you may not need this reference, but failing either one, this becomes crucial for communications. It will also help you identify flags, lights, and other signals even if you do not need to communicate. PS. The flag K means "I wish to communicate." We offer a printed copy of this pub if desired.

Bowditch American Practical Navigator, Pub 9
This is the American Bible of marine navigation, available as a free PDF so it is only logical to have this extensive reference at hand. Skim over the Table of Contents to see what is there—Chapter 6 actually explains the use and value of many of the books on this list. There is in Vol 2 a valuable Glossary as well. Parts are more detailed than we might need; others are excellent presentations in basic and celestial navigation, oceanography, weather, and (increasingly) electronic navigation. Volume 2 includes many tables useful for navigation. Note that this has become a dynamic publication, where improvements or corrections are just added to the online version. It is not clear yet how subsequent changes might be noted. Older versions have much more coverage of celestial navigation, maybe peaking in the '58 or '77 editions. (An aside: In the the latest version, check out second paragraph on page 304 for a reference to the Fit-Slope Method we developed here at Starpath.)

Nautical Almanac
This is a $30 printed book for celestial navigation. It includes both the cel nav data and a set of sight reduction tables. For those who wish to learn the full line of celestial navigation, we recommend our textbook Celestial Navigation: A Complete Home Study Course. For those who do not wish to learn cel nav until it is needed, we recommend our GPS Backup With a Mark 3 Sextant and a Mark 3 Sextant, or better still, our Backup Kit that includes the book, a sextant, a rated watch, and other materials needed. You do not even have to open it until you need it and then everything is there to carry on with cel nav including instructions on how to do it.

Air Almanac (PDF)
This is a free PDF from the Government BookStore. We have a short note about it online and a short printed booklet (with ebook options) that discusses it in detail relative to the Nautical Almanac. It is for the most part redundant to the Nautical Almanac, but celestial navigators might want to save a copy of the the current year's Sky Diagrams for optimum sights selection.

US and International Radio Frequencies and Channels
We would hope that our radio manuals have all of this included, but this cannot be counted on. This information is available on several pages at the USCG Nav Center linked above. We have also put together a short file that includes an indexed list to these, along with notes on their usage, which saves a lot in both compilation time—and access time once compiled (Marine_Radio_Resource.pdf).

International Standard Time Zones of the World
In principle we have this information in the Nautical or Air Almanac, which also includes which nations use daylight saving time and when, but it is hard to beat this up-to-date beautiful presentation.


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