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Posted by on Oct 29, 2013 in News and Events, Powerboating, Safety and Seamanship, Sailing, US | 3 comments

NOAA to Stop Printing Charts. Bummer.

People who still appreciate NOAA's great cartography can still get print-on-demand charts, though.

I’m not sure if I’m the only salted grump at boats.com, but I got elected to say something about NOAA’s decision to stop printing nautical charts.

OK, I’ll say it:  Even though paper charts are not disappearing completely, it’s still sort of a sad day, partly for nostalgic reasons, partly for practical. Out of sight at the chandleries = out of mind. People who haven’t had a chance to really study them may not realize that NOAA’s National Ocean Service charts are things of beauty, filled with incredible amounts of hard-won information. They’ve been around since 1862, and generations of mariners have thought of them as practical works of art. In fact, before he painted the famous picture of his mother, James McNeill Whistler worked for the U.S. Coast Survey, mapping and etching charts and profiles of islands and coastlines. Maybe he helped set the high artistic standard that seems to have carried through.

If you want to see the detail of lower New York harbor on a piece of paper, you'll need a printout.

If you want to see the detail of lower New York harbor on a piece of paper, you’ll need a printout.

For people who love cartography, it will be too bad not to be able to buy these things right off the shelf anymore. In this case the bad news is balanced by the good:  NOAA’s charts will still be available in print-on-demand versions, and when you get them, they’ll be in full color, in full size, and a lot more up-to-date than charts that have been lying around on a shelf gathering dust. One good place to start looking is nauticalchartsonline.com.

There’s no sense railing at NOAA for this decision. The agency is strapped, very few people use paper charts as first-line navigation tools any more, and it’s a logical way to save money. The folks at ActiveCaptain.com make a strong argument in favor of the decision, calling paper charts the second most dangerous thing onboard boats (schedules being the most dangerous things). They point out that most paper charts are quickly outdated, that there’s no way NOAA can keep up, that we have crowd-sourcing now (that’s what ActiveCaptain does, among other things), and that electronic navigation is safer anyway as long as you’ve got lots of redundancy, which most boaters now do because of cell phones and tablets in addition to fixed equipment.

James McNeill Whistler drew and etched for the U.S. Coast Survey. Now that's cartography.

James McNeill Whistler drew and etched for the U.S. Coast Survey. Now that’s cartography.

I wouldn’t argue too much with any of that, but I do take issue with their resistance to the argument that a paper chart provides a clearer overview of a piloting area than an electronic instrument. I have yet to see any chartplotter screen, with all the zooming, panning, dragging, and toggling in the world, that can provide the instant, clear relational information that a paper chart can, with all its rich raster values in one flat place – even a paper chart fragment in a chartbook. I still don’t go anywhere out of my home waters without a paper chart handy.

But the main reason I’m sorry that people will have to go out of their way to get paper charts now is that it will hasten the demise of dead-reckoning skills. Those skills are already wasting away, even among people who learned them young and used them for most of their lives.

Just to be clear, no one in his right mind would forswear GPS in favor of DR on paper charts, but DR skills are valuable in dozens of other ways. They aren’t just boat skills; they’re life skills. Knowing them and practicing them once in a while on a paper chart with a compass, parallel rules, dividers, and some simple math gives you a more intimate understanding of what’s going on around you than a chartplotter can. Again to be clear, I’m not talking about the quantity of data or even the near-perfect accuracy of data; I’m talking about taking a hand in producing the most important data yourself, with your own observations of your surroundings, your course, and your speed. Having that understanding makes your time on the water more fulfilling. And fulfilling is fun.

Salted grump out.

3 Comments

  1. As you rightly point out, even if your primary charting tool is a chartplotter a paper chart provides additional information. For example, I find it very handy to have a large paper chart near the chartplotter in order to have a “big picture” of the situation all around without having to constantly zoom in and out.

  2. This is sad news. Nothing shows the big picture like an old fashioned paper chart, spread out on an old fashioned chart table. And nothing brings back memories of childhood cruising grounds like my dad’s cryptic pencil notes on those heavy waterproof pieces of artwork.