By now everyone’s heard the rumors that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is getting out of the chart business. In reality, the NOAA is making charts better than ever. True, the federal government will no longer be printing the traditional lithographic paper charts that they’ve been producing since the days of the Civil War. Instead, NOAA-certified print-on-demand (POD) partners will handle the printing of the wide array of charts that the NOAA will continue to create.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) currently handles printing for the NOAA, but with recent federal cutbacks, the FAA announced that it no longer had the means to incur such a cost. Surprisingly though, the announcement ultimately translates to a better, more accurate experience for everyone using the NOAA’s charts.
Historically, the charts have been printed in large runs, meaning many copies of the same chart were printed at the same time. Those charts were then stored and delivered to outlets as needed, until the supply ran low and a new printing was ordered. That meant each batch of charts was only as accurate as the date they were printed. It was left to the purchaser or end user to hand correct any changes or updates.
The advantage of POD charts is that they can be as up to date as possible prior to the point of sale. They contain all the most recent changes to navigational aids, shoals, wrecks, obstructions and shorelines, just to name a few. Under the old system, a new print run wasn’t commissioned until there were enough changes to justify the cost. The NOAA and POD buyers are anxious to see what entrepreneurs will come up with as value-added features in future charts.
POD is not a new phenomena. It has been an alternative way to get charts since 1999, and is presently available through two certified NOAA agents, OceanGrafix and East View Geospatial. Both companies are brick and mortar businesses that also do business online and will ship charts within 24 hours of receiving an order. These charts qualify as “published by” the NOAA, thus satisfying federal navigation safety regulations for large ships. Print quality and materials must meet NOAA standards, and the prices are regulated via an agreement with the agency, wherein it also takes a small portion (50 cents) of each chart to offset the cost of managing the program.
The NOAA is open to new companies applying to become agents, adding to their suppliers list, and is keen to see what value they can add to existing charts. Possibilities include such features as tides and current tables printed in the borders. Suppliers can also offer certain different types of paper, including folded and waterproof varieties.
The NOAA also has other offerings in cartography. With processes aboard, including charting, becoming evermore electronic, now the agency offers free downloads of Raster Navigational Charts (NOAA RNC) and Electronic Navigational Charts (NOAA ENC). You need commercial software to use these formats, but the charts themselves are available at no cost. In fact, the agency is now offering most of its standard nautical charts in a PDF format on a temporary trial basis. This seemingly popular offering received over a million hits the week it was announced. Of course, unless you have a large format printer these charts will be limited to smaller segments not sufficient for serious mariners who require the fuller size of a traditional chart.
At the end of the day, even with elimination of government-printed charts, mariners will have more options than ever in charting, and can benefit from high quality, up-to-date publications. “Our primary concern continues to be making sure that boaters, fishing vessels, and commercial mariners have access to the most accurate, up-to-date nautical chart in a format that works well for them,” says Capt. Shep Smith, Chief of the NOAA office of Coast Survey’s Marine Chart Division. The content comes from the same place, even if the ink and paper doesn’t.