Nfld. & Labrador

An inside look at the science of hydrography at a time of great change

Mariners have relied on charts for centuries, but in 1990 the science was rapidly shifting thanks to digital technology.

The science behind charts that mariners had relied on for centuries was rapidly shifting

The Canadian hydrographic ship Maxwell spent 30 years in service on the country's Atlantic coast. (Land & Sea 1990)

"You've got to be foolish to go out without charts."

Cec Pitcher of Hearts Content, N.L., knew a thing or two about navigating the ocean waters, after 45 years as a skipper.

He knew his home area in Trinity Bay well, but wouldn't dare go out further without his marine charts on board.

As chief hydrographer on the Maxwell, Capt. Julian Goodyear relies on the charts, but also is responsible for making them. (Land & Sea 1990)

But in order for people like Pitcher to use charts, they have to be made. That's where hydrography comes in.

Hydrography is the science of surveying and charting bodies of water, and when CBC's Land & Sea came aboard the Matthew in 1990, that's just what they were doing.

Updating Labrador charts

The Matthew, by that point, had spent three decades in service as a Canadian hydrography ship.

Capt. Julian Goodyear is the ship's chief hydrographer, and he and his crew were surveying around Smokey, in Labrador, to update charts that were last done 30 years ago.

Tide measurements must be done at both low tide and high tide, so possible obstructions aren't missed. (Land & Sea 1990)

"At that time, when the survey was done in Smokey, we didn't have the volume of shipping or the tonnage of shipping," Goodyear said.

The area was a busy one for fishing, he said, with a new facility in place, and updates to the charts were needed.

Goodyear is a stickler. The day's work on the Maxwell isn't done until the next day has been planned for. (Land & Sea 1990)

The charts that would result from the survey would be legal documents, he said, ones that mariners would rely on heavily. High standards and accurate data were important.

"From the early days of hydrography, the early explorers knew that when they came back into an area they must have good information."

A hard day's work

To get that information, several things had to be done. Transponders, radio beacons transmitting electronic signals, had to be put out on the highest points of land in the area. That was done via helicopter, which brought the crew from site to site — doing in hours what would have taken weeks by foot.

Tides had to be measured, at both low and high times. And divers needed to do visual inspections of the areas around wharves, checking for obstructions.

The state-of-the-art Matthew would soon take over the Atlantic route. (Land & Sea 1990)

At the end of the day, all that data gets checked for accuracy, processed first by hand and then digitally. That last step represents a sea change in hydrography.

"When I came here in 1971, basically the hydrographer carried two sextants and an echo sounder, with a notebook and a few pencils," Goodyear said.

"The whole concept of data acquisition has changed."

For more archival Land & Sea episodes, visit CBC N.L's YouTube page.

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