What’s Wrong with the National Charting Plan – Part 1


By: Bob Sweet, former USPS National Education Officer

As you may know, the NOAA Office of Coast Survey is currently accepting public comment on its draft National Charting Plan.

According to NOAA, the purpose of the draft plan is “to solicit feedback from nautical chart users regarding proposed changes to NOAA’s paper and electronic chart products.”

I’m glad NOAA is reaching out for feedback. Here’s a brief overview of mine:

The National Charting Plan’s vision for the future sees “the end of raster navigation charts” and “the sunset of paper charts.”

That’s a wrong-headed view.

Yes, electronic charting has its value—especially in its ability to be easily updated. But for recreational boaters in particular, paper charts are critical.

Electronic charting favors commercial vessels

There’s no doubt the era of electronic charting is upon us. Problem is, electronic navigation charts (ENCs) favor commercial shipping over recreational boating. ENCs offer critical navigation information but leave out a lot of the detail and features found on paper charts.

The U.S. participates in treaties that lead to the mandatory use of ENC systems by commercial vessels on international voyages (see footnote). That means these commercial vessels no longer need to carry paper charts.

For international navigators, paper charts may not be critical, because their task is setting course in the open ocean most of the time. As the vessel approaches port, there are few approaches, and these are clearly delineated on the ENCs. Often, the vessel is brought into port by a “pilot” who specializes in local waters. ENCs work great for this task and that’s the rationale behind the international standards. They also eliminate the risk of failure of the electronic system by requiring redundant systems.

For recreational boaters, though, this trend toward diminishing the availability of the more detailed paper charts (and even their electronic equivalents called raster navigation charts) should be a serious concern.

Most recreational boaters use some sort of electronic navigation based on GPS. And many have chartplotters, which display the boat’s position directly on an electronic version of a chart.

But prudent recreational boaters always carry paper charts as well.

The problem with ENCs is that they emphasize commercial shipping areas, while offering a less detailed presentation, particularly of land features. Unfortunately, it is precisely those areas of potential elimination—that is, charts of larger scale (more detail)—that mean the most to recreational boaters.

In short, recreational boaters need charts that their commercial and international counterparts do not.

As NOAA accepts public feedback and modifies the National Charting Plan, I hope it will give equal priority to the millions of recreational boats and boaters—as opposed to its current emphasis on satisfying just the thousands of commercial vessels.

Complying with international treaties is important. And supporting safety at sea is critical. But emphasizing this small segment of the user community is not the right answer for the vast population of boaters.

Your thoughts matter!

In Part 2 of this blog, I’ll outline four key reasons why we still need paper charts. Stay tuned!

Footnote: By international treaty, the U.S. participates in the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), which applies to international voyages. In 2012, IMO (International Maritime Organization) adopted regulations leading to mandatory use of Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS). By July 2018, all international vessels over 10,000 gross tons will be required to implement ECDIS.

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