Viewpoint: NOAA Stopped Printing Paper Charts­, So What?

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Last October, NOAA announced it was abandoning the chart-printing business. The last lithographic charts will roll off government presses on April 13. NOAA will continue to provide updated accurate “print on demand” (POD) charts, as well as PDF files, which users can print or download themselves, and will work with businesses that wish to print charts for resale.

So, effectively, little will actually change. But that fact didn’t halt the storm of opinion regarding the viability of paper versus electronic charts that swept through the boating world. In terms of ferocity, this discussion is rivaling the age-old “best anchor” debate.

Some sailors insist that paper charts are not only irrelevant, they are actually dangerous. Others hold the opposite viewpoint. Capt. Shep Smith of NOAA states, “We do not believe paper charts are unnecessary—quite the contrary. For safe navigation, they should be widely used and up to date, and we don’t see that as being incompatible with the government getting out of the printing business.”

Sailors themselves seem to fall into three camps. The smallest is the group that eschews electronics entirely and relies solely on paper charts. They also use kerosene lamps and don’t use engines. Unfortunately, since they’re not online, we haven’t heard much from them.

The second group claims to have thrown out all their paper charts and relies solely on digital charts. Their mantra is “redundancy,” which means multiple chartplotters, computer/GPS interfaces and smartphones with charting apps. Based on their online commentary, they seem to be mostly newer sailors.

The largest group, of which I’m a member, won’t go anywhere without paper charts, but relies increasingly on electronic gadgetry and likes to have several sources of navigational information. Interestingly enough, this group seems to include naval officers, circumnavigators and other highly experienced sailors, including many professional delivery captains—a group more likely than most to be faced with equipment failures.

One sailor, Dick McClary, notes on the Seven Seas Cruising Association Facebook page: “Failure of our electronic navigation systems is always a risk, one we can’t eliminate. How do we mitigate its effect? A sextant, a hand-bearing compass, parallel rules, dividers—and paper charts.”

Over at Active Captain’s Facebook page, another gentleman states, “At 70+, I just purchased my first ‘big’ boat. On all of the big-boat charters I’ve skippered in the last 15 years, we used only electronic charts. There will be four of us cruising on the new boat in January, and I have been agonizing over the decision to purchase paper charts, because if I didn’t, was I being a carefully prudent, responsible skipper? Thanks to Jeff, my $ will go to electronic media redundancy to salve my conscience.”

Yet another post at Cruiser’s Forum states: “Show me a skipper brought up exclusively on digital who can work out, while at sea in choppy conditions, a DR position with tidal vector...leeway, deviation, variation, etc. I’d be more impressed if the same skipper even knows what a running fix is.”
Finally, cruising-guide author Stephen Pavlidis says, “Electronic charting systems are nice, but cruising without a paper copy of your charts is like driving a car with no spare.”

So, who’s right? If you can afford the expense of (and have room at the helm for) redundant digital systems, and the cost of updating digital charts on a regular basis, perhaps sailing all-digital is fine. One cruiser noted that his planned cruising next season would require “Seven C-Map chips and two others updated.” For the same money, he added, he could “purchase 75 Imray charts.”

For others, the cost of multiple digital systems is simply unreasonable, given that charts, once purchased, can be updated for free via Notices to Mariners—an option that may not be convenient, but it is certainly within any sailor’s budget.

So what do you do when the lights go out and everything with a battery is bathed in saltwater? Me, I dig out my paper charts and sail home. Or you could do what one sailor did when his chartplotter failed on a clear day outside of a clearly marked harbor channel: call TowBoat US.


Read Peter Nielsen's From the Editor: Paper Yields to Pixels here

Read Lauren Saalmuller's NOAA to Stop Printing Paper Charts here


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