Paper Charts No More? What is the Solution?

There is a major change coming for boaters who use navigation charts, the “sun-setting of paper nautical charts. “In 2019, NOAA announced its Sunsetting of Raster Nautical Charts in the Federal Register. The raster sunset program will gradually end production and maintenance of NOAA traditional paper and raster nautical chart products. Beginning in 2021, NOAA will start canceling its traditional nautical charts. The process is expected to be completed by January 2025. Other countries are also following a similar path away from paper.

Image Courtesy of Chris Kennan

As captains and crew know, the use of current charts and data for navigation is critical for safe marine navigation. Waterways shoal, change, and so do “Aids to Navigation”, such as the buoy systems employed world wide.

Keeping this information updated to create navigation charts is usually a governmental activity, with each country responsible for its own waterways. The actual process of updating marine charts and data varies from country to country, but it is a complicated process requiring expensive bathymetric surveys as well as reporting systems depending on mariners. And many countries, including the USA, are changing what products are updated as they modernize charting procedures and move away from paper charts. To use these products, mariners can purchase their navigation charts, paper and/or electronic, from vendors who obtain the governmental data and process it into various formats for either printing as paper charts or for use on electronic chartplotters. In some instances, the electronic and/or raster data is downloaded for at little or no cost from some governments, such as https://www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/

For the USA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA) Office of Coastal Survey is responsible for upgrading charts, surveying the seafloor, responding to maritime emergencies, and searching for underwater obstructions that pose a danger to navigation. Charts are defined as both paper/raster navigation chart (RNC) products (as well as the newer Electronic Navigation Charts (ENC). ENCs are used by various chart plotter devices on vessels. NOAA also produces the Coast Pilots for USA waters, updated weekly/ monthly. It is available for download at no charge from the above NOAA link; realize the content is updated frequently, up to weekly, with new pilot information, buoys and important details. Hurricane holes are mentioned, entry, currents, tides, and critical data. It’s a must read.

Why the change from RNC/paper products?

The updating requirements to keep two separate and visually different systems accurate has become too difficult and manpower intensive. Plus the fact that paper/raster products are only visual, without the background data readable by electronic systems is limiting functionality. Most the charting industries have moved to electronic systems who not only can read and place objects ON the maps, but also provide interaction and alerts as applications. A paper or raster chart does not allow this type of functionality; its possible to place an object based on latitude and longitude, but not have any dynamic depth data or other navigation features cruisers now expect. Think of a paper chart/raster as a mirror—it reflects an image, but there is no “behind the image“ data. You can markup the mirror, but again it reflects just a static image. 

What is important for captains to know is the change this movement away from paper products to electronic will cause. NOAA, several years ago started the migration away from paper raster charts. They made a decision to update critical navigation aids as well as safety features, but for survey data, that is only updated on electronic data. ENCS contain both bathymetric and survey depths. Raster/Paper charts show the ‘design’ depths, but not actual survey depths—critical for boaters. In other words, if a channel was designed, in say 1960, to have a 35 ft depth, the current raster product may show ‘project depth 35 ft,” when the channel is now shoaled in some areas to 5 ft. Of course there are “Aids to Navigation’’ placed to warn cruisers, but the older expectation to ‘read the depth’ on the map is not available. Check the date of your paper map creation, it’s a critical data point on the navigability of the area charted. After the date of creation, publication, it is the task of the captain to update manually the changes from the USCG published monthly. Frankly, this is not often done reliably by most cruisers, just be aware.

Vessels are encouraged by NOAA to utilize (and update) their ENCs on electronic charting systems, as well as Raster/ paper charts. Paper charts continue to be updated with all corrections included in the Chart Corrections Section of the US Coast Guard’s Local Notice to Mariners (LNM). But as products diverge, the products become very different. For example, some recent data (2018) for Puerto Rico charts is only on the ENC (electronic charts/chart plotter formats).  There will be additional Puerto Rico 2018 Nearshore LIDAR data released, in the near future, some of the data is already partially available in ENCs but may not be in the Raster/paper products. Quite a few surveys for Puerto Rico in general have been applied to the ENC, but again not the RNC / Paper. This example process sounds confusing, it is, and is being repeated all over the USA.

Types and capabilities of electronic charting systems range in sophistication from phone/tablet applications to highly capable Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) found on all Safety Of Like At Sea or “SOLAS “vessels. SOLAS is a convention adopted following the Titanic disaster in 1914, and has been updated several times; commercial and government vessels follow this convention for safety. While electronic systems used on vessels are technically GIS, they meet certain standards which are not included in normal desktop type Geographic Information Systems (GIS) applications. The function of the marine devices designed to accurately display Electronic Navigational Charts (ENC), created in a specific data format. This will allow future expansion to a much more robust view of data, to include weather and much more. 

 Many recreational boaters have selected to purchase Chart Plotters from manufactures such as Garmin, Furuno, Raytheon and others to meet their navigation needs. These devices use either proprietary charts developed for their product or official ENCs produced by NOAA or USACE. And the look of the ENC charts are different from the paper/raster format and do require familiarization; each vendor can display the data based on their implementation. And that applies to updating, some vendors update via a chip/download, some update directly via an internet connection; there is no standard. As NOAA updates the official ENC(s) at least monthly, users should be aware of the need to update their onboard devices to get the most recent information. Three years can mean a major change in shoal depths for some regions. 

Will there be paper charts at all?

The availability of paper charts will continue, however the ‘look’ will change to an ENC look, which is different from the older raster products. Mariners are able to obtain “paper” charts through the online NOAA Custom Chart (NCC) application at https://devgis.charttools.noaa.gov/pod. The NCC was developed to enable users to create their own customized charts directly from the latest NOAA ENC data. While these custom charts do not fulfill the US Coast Guard carriage requirements for regulated commercial vessels, they contain the same up-to-date information contained on ENCs. More information about NCC is available on the NOAA Coast Survey’s website at https://nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/charts/noaa-custom-charts.html

The focus of this article is to inform, and make the cruising public aware of navigational chart changes they should be planning for in the near future. Changes are already in place and happening. 

Captains should become aware of the new features of the electronic systems, the chart views, AND update their systems (both paper and electronic) frequently if they are in areas facing major waterway changes. 

Changes can be due to extreme weather events, changes in water depths and flows, shorelines shoal aids to navigation get added or removed. It’s the captain who is responsible for keeping their vessel and crew safe, navigation tools such as charts are a part of safety at sea, near or offshore. Seven Seas Cruising Association, a part of our Advocacy programs, are researching and keeping the boating community informed of this type of major program changes as much as possible. As part of our outreach, SSCA has several public service online webinars at www.ssca.org/ssu. Please be aware and enjoy passaging, knowing you have the most recent information to help keep everyone safe.