Here’s another one of my best friends on the boat: a grease pencil! In combination with a piece of office-style “whiteboard,” and a clear vinyl chart case, two substantial, everyday cruising chores are easily taken care of: chart work, and all those stray numbers.

First, a bit about the grease pencil itself (also called a “china marker”). The kind with the paper strip that you unwrap to gradually get more of the grease point is not the right one… the paper strip, wrapped or unwrapped, does exactly what you would think it would do when it gets wet, becoming a mushy mess. Fortunately, nowadays there are the plastic kind, like in the bulk section of the natural food store, for marking the code or price of whatever you have put in your bulk bag.

These natural food store grease pencils are perfect! I’ve offered to buy them from my local natural food store, but the folks I asked didn’t know how to sell them to me (no code number, I think). Ten years ago they were hard to find on the Internet, leading to complicated moral decisions in the natural food store; now, I’m happy to say, a search for “plastic grease pencils” turns them right up, along with replacement leads. That’s an enormous relief, since they are so incredibly useful.

Sailboat cruising involves a lot of odd numbers that need to be either remembered, or for those of us with less than stellar memories, endlessly looked up. These include everything from times of high and low tide, and current changes and directions, to radio channels appropriate for longer conversations, and if one should be so lucky, the radio channels for “Fundy traffic,” which looks after who is going where in the fog in the Bay of Fundy. (I was delighted to get far enough in 2013 to actually need the number for Fundy traffic!) Then too, there are the radio channels for triggering foghorns, since the Coast Guard instituted this system as an alternative to horns triggered by automated visibility sensors.

If you travel very far along the coast, there is the issue that the magnetic variation shown on each chart will change, and the figure only appears on the chart in those tiny faintly printed numbers inside the compass rose. Along with that, I am forever forgetting if I should be adding or subtracting, as I move between magnetic and true figures for courses and bearings.

All of these numbers and more can be neatly kept track of with a grease pencil and a “whiteboard,” (also called a “dry-erase board”) like what is normally used with special magic markers for offices or refrigerator notes. The wide black lines of the grease pencil are easy to read against the whiteboard – even without reading glasses, if you write big enough – and they wipe off with dry toilet paper. Whiteboards are available in all sorts of configurations at low-end department stores like Kmart, at minimal cost.

In the photos above, the two small boards are mounted with adhesive velcro just inside the companionway hatch, so they are visible from both the cockpit and the cabin. The one on the left has tide times, and the one on the right has the compass variation of the moment, and the conversion formulas, as well as assorted radio channels. The velcro means it’s easy to take the boards down, erase outdated material, and write in the new stuff. Even though I sailed south, I left Fundy traffic on its board, because it makes me so happy to think that I got to where I needed it!

The bigger, unattached whiteboard is handy for many things, from current tables, to predicted wind, to compass notes. Most often, I use it to copy out current information that is relevant at the time. But it’s also been useful while navigating, especially for taking bearings, noting them down along with the time, and then doing out the conversions to true, also on the board. With two or three bearing targets, it’s easy to make a grid, targets down the side, magnetic bearings, conversion, and true bearings going across, with true bearings then ready for plotting on the chart. Sure there’s the GPS, but it’s nice to keep in practice, and I find I do it more since I quit trying to just remember everything, or go through the production of paper, pencil, and glasses.

Then there’s the chart. For cockpit navigation, a long time ago I started using vinyl ziploc chart cases that are marketed for kayaking, that have plastic D-rings on the corners. They keep the water off the chart, and if you clip a little tether line onto the corner, the chart stays in the boat, regardless of weather chaos, or simple lack of attention. I once watched a nice, oversized artists’ clipboard that I used for charts go over the side and instantly sink – fortunately not with my only chart clipped onto it! But it could’ve been, and the image of it sinking so fast (into open water about 40 feet deep) has stayed with me.

Anyway, once the chart is in the vinyl case and tethered to the boat, the grease pencil works perfectly on the vinyl. Positions/times, courses, speeds and distances, can all get laid out, and are waterproof. The only thing you have to watch out for is that the chart does not shift within the case. Sometimes I fold the chart just so, so there’s no room for shifting; other times I put two widely-spaced grease pencil reference marks, and try to remember to check that the chart is lined up with the marks before each new entry.


In this photo, additional marks were set up for sailing at night into a somewhat tricky harbor (Roque Island). All the lighted buoys are written large – for example “G4” as my personal shorthand for “green, flashing 4 seconds.” Rocks or other hazards are given a triangle around them with the grease pencil, so they’ll stand out in the dark with a flashlight and without reading glasses. The one tricky thing about this particular example is that if you look closely – possible by clicking on the photo, and then clicking again, to enlarge it further – you can see that the chart actually did shift within the case. Some marks are where they belong, but some of the circles around unlighted buoys, and triangles around hazards, are actually not quite where they belong. Still, you can get the idea. Later, where you might have noticed that the position fixes stop, I flipped to the more detailed chart, which was set up facing the other side of the case, likewise with the buoys, lights, and hazards marked. Eventually it occurred to me that if I took a photo before cleaning the chart case, I’d have a record of that particular sail. That’s been fun too.

These chart cases last well, except for the ziploc bit at the corners. I have, however, been surprised to find that except for in a dumping rain, the tears at the corners don’t matter at all. So now they have to be really far gone before I bother to replace them – these are the ones that I had on the Falmouth cutter, 10 years ago.

As for the charts, I’ve become quite fond of those maptech chart books – the giant spiral-bound collections, like for Block Island RI to the Canadian border. Nowadays, I take a double set of that one. One is designated for tearing out (from the spiral binding) and the other is kept intact. The tearout pages go in the vinyl cover for the cockpit, but it’s nice to have the intact set for in the cabin where it’s dry. And then, it’s really nice to have that second set if the other chart that you need to check is on the backside of the tearout one that is so perfectly folded and positioned within the chart case! Besides which, I’m a redundancy nut, and it makes me really happy to know that even if I really screwed up and the chart case went over the side, I would not be stuck without a chart for the place where I was sailing.

Between the chart case that you can write on – and erase – and the whiteboards, and the grease pencil to go with them (okay, five, stashed in handy locations), keeping track of crucial information has become quite a bit easier aboard AUKLET. An upcoming post has a lot to say about memory, and thinking, and things like fatigue; the above strategies are convenient, and generally make life easier, but they also contribute to safety, related to those brain-function issues.

Any time that crucial information can be easily organized and readily available, in a form that can be absorbed even while terribly tired or stressed, the chances are improved that it will be put to use at those critical moments. That’s a good thing, and it’s just that much more of a bonus that it makes everyday life easier (and more fun!) too. Who would’ve thought that a little grease pencil could have so much to it!