Current charts are a vital navigational tool. It is far from wise to venture into new waters blindly without a good set of charts, but in the realm of the reckless, it can be done!
You may find yourself entering a new port where you were not able to get charts for before you left, for one reason or another. The important thing is that you have now found yourself in the predicament where you lack information about the waters you will travel through to get to shore so that you can find charts of these waters. Fear not, as there are ways to navigate without the use of nautical charts!
Charts will have navigational aids displayed on them, showing you where everything is and helping you find your location and your way. Without the chart, you will need to rely on only these navigational aids.
The most common and useful aids will be markers (buoys and day markers) and range lights. Buoys mark the channel, which is deep water, deep enough for commercial vessels to pass through. These channels can be wide, and ideally wide enough for you to tack within. Markers are also numerically and color coordinated, allowing you to stay on course and find your way into the heart of the town with ease. Green buoys are numbered with odd numbers, while red buoys are numbered with even numbers. The numbers are set ascending as you enter a channel and lead up to the main harbor.
If you are out at sea and trying to find your way in, you need to find buoy #1, which would be green. From this buoy, you would then need to spot buoy #2, which would be red, and then search for buoy #3 which would be green. As you make your way up the channel, the numbers will continue to ascend. This lets you know that you are on track and staying in the safer water depths. As you enter a channel, you need to remember the 3Rs: Red Right Returinging. This means that as you return to port, the red buoys pass your right side.
Buoys are a handy navigational aid, but they pale in comparison to range lights. Buoys require you to constantly search for the next marker as you search for your way up the channel. Range lights serve as a giant beacon that will guide you in with no other aids needed.
Range lights are two lights setup on shore, the front light is set low, the rear light is set high. When you are in the middle of the channel, the two lights will appear stacked. When you see this, you know you are ready to enter the harbor on a straight shot with no fear of underwater surprises. Range lights are set far apart from each other, so if you are to the left of the center, the lower light will be off to the right side. If you are to the right of the center, the lower light will be to the left.
An easy way to figure out the light orientation is to hold two fingers out in front of your face, one set behind the other.
When you are lined up with the fingers, they appear in a row and the rear finger is behind the front finger. The range lights are set the same way, stacked in appearance from the water.
If you are to the left of the center, the front and lower light will appear to be to the right of the rear and taller light.
If you are to the right of the channel, the front and lower light will appear to be to the left of the rear and upper light.
Finding the range lights and keeping them stacked will keep you in the center of the channel and safe as you make your way into the harbor with no charts, simply relying on the navigational aids setup by those with a profound knowledge of the sea floor below the waves.