NOAA plots new course for nautical charts

Bob Sweet

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has decided to sunset paper and raster digital charts. If you want to replace a paper chart, you will be able to print a vector version of the chart. So, what’s the big deal?

Invented for chartplotters, vector charts only contain data rather than a picture, making them easier to store and display. To create the original vector charts, NOAA cartographers traced the paper charts using just the shorelines, contours, and depths. Next, they added prominent features, avoiding most land-based features to save space. Perfect for chartplotters, vector charts allow you to move around, scale in or out, and scroll over a feature to get more information. These charts, called electronic navigation charts, are the survivors.

Since commercial mariners must update their charts, they use ENC charts in lieu of paper charts because they are easy to update. The use of ENC charts is approved if the mariners employ Electronic Charting and Display Information System hardware. In the U.S., ENCs are built through the regularly updated common database and used to support vector, raster, and paper charts.

Prudent boaters use printed charts as backup and to provide the bigger picture, while the chartplotter shows the boat, present course, and nearby details. However, to be useful, a printed chart must contain all the pertinent information. That’s where the cartographer comes in. Somebody decides how and where to display that information as well as helpful notes and insets with more details for selected harbors and passages.

This process is called chart finishing, and over many decades, cartographers refined and improved our paper charts. Today, all they need to do is update the chart as changes occur. Traditional paper charts still have all the details that were not traced and stored in the database. However, all of that is going away, and along with it goes any information that was not coded into the database. That is, unless NOAA decides to add that missing information.

If you know what you are doing, you can select charts and get them printed for you. But most boaters are going to need some help.

For those of us who need printed charts, NOAA has created a computer application called NOAA Custom Chart. This neat program enables you to print a vector chart of your choosing, at the scale you select, on the size paper you want. It sounds great, and it is, up to a point. Version 1 was released in May 2021. So far, however, it falls short of our cartographers’ idea of a useful chart. How so?

Boaters rely on navigation aids and landmarks to help them navigate on the water and confirm their position. To do that, boaters need to be able to uniquely identify these features on the chart. Unfortunately, the initial version of NOAA Custom Chart fails to label most navigation aids, but NOAA is gradually fixing problems with each update.

On your chartplotter, you can scroll over to a navigation aid, and more information pops up. On your paper chart, what you see is what you get. If the aid is not labeled, you don’t know what it is. When finishing a chart, cartographers make sure the labels are included and readable. What’s more, all that shore-based information we use for reference and taking bearings is largely missing on these new charts, and when shown, the information is usually not labeled.

Then there is the question of how you select charts. Chart numbers go away, completely. Even the ENCs are being restructured so the present numbers don’t mean anything. You will need to find a different way to get your charts by location alone. And what scale chart will you choose? The amount of detail available in the database is largely based on the present suite of paper charts and their respective scales. We will also lose chart insets, folio chart sets, and strip charts that follow coastlines for places like the ICW.

Updates become an issue as well. Presently, we can use the Local Notice to Mariners to know what has changed, but the notices list changes by chart number. Previously, when enough changes occurred, NOAA issued a new chart edition and date. Now, how will we know?

Commercial chart producers are scrambling to come up with solutions to make it easier for you to get what you need. If you know what you are doing, you can select charts and get them printed for you. But most boaters are going to need some help.

Fortunately, NOAA recognizes the challenges and is soliciting input to refine the process. That’s where you come in. Go to the NCC application, NOAA Custom Chart, and take it for a spin. PDF charts are created in the size, orientation, and location of your choosing. You can select soundings in meters, feet or fathoms. You can select depth contour intervals and the number of colors. You can also name the charts.

Use the tab on the NOAA Custom Chart screen to provide feedback, report your comments and detail anything else you believe needs fixing. While there’s strong priority supporting international and commercial shipping, boaters operate in different waters and have different needs. Recreational boaters in the U.S. number in the millions, whereas commercial mariners are in the thousands. Let your voice be heard.

Bob Sweet

Bob Sweet, Senior Navigator, wrote “The Weekend Navigator,” “GPS for Mariners,” “Powerboat Handling Illustrated,” and “Using GPS.” The former United States Power Squadrons National Educational Officer lives and boats on the waters around Cape Cod.

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