NOAA Invites Public Comment on the National Charting Plan

March 26, 2017

In February, the NOAA Office of Coast Survey released a draft of “The National Charting Plan: A Strategy to Transform Nautical Charting.”

NOAA is currently seeking public comment on the draft.

Through midnight on June 1, 2017, all nautical chart users—from professional mariners and recreational boaters to data providers and navigational equipment manufacturers—are invited to review the plan and provide feedback.

Here’s what you need to know:

The National Charting Plan lays out a strategy to make improvements to NOAA’s entire suite of nautical chart products—with the goal of providing customers with products that are more useful, up-to-date, and safer to navigate with.

According to NOAA, the plan includes services and products that will be changed or discontinued, and the introduction of completely new products and services optimized for modern technology and techniques.

It’s worth noting that the plan is a comprehensive strategy to improve all charts—and does not cover maintenance of individual charts.

In soliciting user feedback on the plan, NOAA states that while some changes have already begun (like improving the portrayal of wrecks on electronic navigational charts), other changes (like the possible conversion of charted depths from feet and fathoms to meters) are being evaluated.

Want to give your input about the changes discussed in the plan? See the Federal Register Notice to download the plan and to get directions on how to submit your comments.

Just remember, the deadline is midnight June 1, 2017!


Heavy Icebreakers: An Asset to Scientific Research

March 14, 2017

For the past 40 years, the U.S. Coast Guard has resupplied the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo and Amundsen-Scott South Pole stations in Antarctica for Operation Deep Freeze. As you might imagine, getting to the edge of the earth is not a simple task. The Coast Guard deploys over 140 crew members to navigate frigid waters and safely supply the two stations using a heavy icebreaker. The ship navigates through 70 miles of ice, ranging in thickness from one to 10 feet, just to reach the McMurdo station. On Feb. 13th, as the icebreaking crew reached where few humans have been, senior Coast Guard leaders gathered in Washington D.C. to talk about the need for more U.S. icebreakers.

The Committee on Polar Icebreaker Cost Assessment was briefed by Coast Guard Vice Commandant Adm. Charles Michel, who shared how access to polar regions is important for our nation’s security and sovereign interests. Yet the Polar Star is currently the only operational icebreaker.

According to the Coast Guard’s blog, “…the Admiral spoke of the need for modern, capable icebreakers as a national security imperative. To that end, the Admiral shared key findings from a 2010 study that identified the need for three heavy and three medium icebreakers to provide sufficient capability to support U.S. national interests in the polar regions.”

Admiral Michel urged, “To be clear, our current fleet does not meet this need. We currently cannot guarantee year-round, assured access. If Polar Star were to suffer a casualty, we have zero self rescue capability.”

Directed by Congress, this committee formed to create a report that can be used for future operation and acquisition processes for one or more heavy icebreakers. This was the first meeting, but they plan to publish their findings in July 2017. Once the findings are published, an educated decision can be made on the next steps to continue providing safe access to Antarctica.

How To Handle GPS Failure at Sea (and why it’s absolutely crucial to be prepared)

February 25, 2017

“For thousands of years . . . sailors used the constellations, sun, and moon to navigate to distant shores. Today, all that’s needed is a device called a GPS receiver. GPS stands for Global Positioning System, and it lets us know where we are and where we are going anywhere on Earth.”

NOAA National Ocean Service

GPS is a godsend. Indeed, mariners, road-trippers, tourists and adventurers of all kinds depend on this device to get from point A to point B.

But as wonderful as GPS is, it’s crucial that we not lose the ability to find our way without it. Because GPS is not immune to failure. It can stop working for any number of reasons, from a dead battery to a lost signal—or even intentional jamming.

The odds of your GPS failing might be slim, but unless you’re well prepared, the consequences could be life threatening.

How to Handle a GPS Failure

  1. Always Carry a Backup: Sometimes the only “fix” you need is a backup GPS. That is, if the problem is with your device itself (a dead battery or other technical failing), then a having a second device on hand will quickly solve your problem. Here’s a great piece of advice from Steve Henkind in Sail Magazine:

I like to carry a spare that is similar or identical to the main unit; if I should have to activate the spare, there’s no learning curve involved. Also be aware that most units go through a cold start the first time you turn them on in a new area; this means it may take several minutes, or longer, to establish a fix while the unit is searching for the satellites. That’s why, if you are passing through navigationally tricky waters, it’s a good idea to start up the spare beforehand; once the spare unit has a fix, you can turn it off. Periodically turning on the spare also allows you to check that its batteries are strong and functional. 

  1. Navigate Manually: If your GPS fails due to a lost signal, you’ll need to use traditional methods and tools (e.g. paper chart, compass, parallel rulers) to verify your position and calculate course headings and distances to the closest port of call. Again, this is why it’s important to learn—and maintain—manual navigation skills.

There’s a great article in the Daily Boater on how to navigate to shore without a GPS, including these tips on how to verify your position:

  • If you can see land and can draw lines of position back from preferably 3 or more points on your paper charts, you have to be where they intersect.
  • If you can see only one landmark, you can calculate a “running fix.” Get a bearing from your … compass to the one point you can see. Draw the line of position from you to it – and write down the time. While maintaining course and speed, give yourself some time before taking another bearing to that landmark and draw the new line of position and mark the time. 

Don’t know how to do running fix? This article in Cruising World provides a step-by-step explanation.

  1. Call for Rescue: When you can’t navigate to land, for whatever reason, it’s time to call for help. If you have a standard VHF radio and are within radio range of the Coast Guard, send out a distress call. Using its Rescue-21 system, the USCG can pinpoint your location and quickly begin the search and rescue mission.

Learn more about Rescue-21 here.

TIP: Prepare, prepare, prepare! Many expert skippers recommend that you always keep a manual log of where you are and what course you should be steering to make your next waypoint—and update it every 15-30 minutes. If your GPS ever fails, the information in your log will provide a good starting point from which to navigate your way back to land (or in the worst-case scenario, the information may help expedite search and rescue efforts).

The U.S. and Cuba Chart New Waters

February 18, 2017

The United States and Cuba have worked together to create a new international paper chart. And that’s big news!

According to NOAA, the chart—which covers south Florida, the Bahamas, and north Cuba—is “the first cooperative charting product between the [two countries] during the modern era.”

Memorandum of Understanding

This international charting effort is part of a broader agreement between the U.S. and Cuba, which aims to protect lives and property at sea. Here’s a bit of background.

In March 2016, the U.S. and Cuba signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The MOU was signed in Havana by Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, and Col. Candido Alfredo Regalado Gomez, Chief of Cuba’s National Office of Hydrography and Geodesy (OHG).

With the signing of the memorandum, NOAA and OHG aim to improve maritime navigation safety and related areas of mutual interest.

“Improved navigation services are important for commercial mariners and individual boaters alike,” said Ambassador DeLaurentis, “and it is particularly important as authorized trade and authorized travel increase between the two countries.”

A Focus on Electronic and Paper Charts

According to NOAA, a key aspect of the MOU is to improve maritime navigation safety by aligning each country’s charts. Specific efforts include:

  • Ensuring the accuracy of both electronic and paper charts
  • Eliminating charting overlaps
  • Filling in gaps in navigational chart coverage

But the MOU goes beyond improving domestic charts. As noted at the top of this blog, NOAA and OHG have worked together to create a new (and groundbreaking!) international chart as well.

According to NOAA, “the publication of the new international chart, along with alignment of U.S. and Cuba electronic navigational charts, will resolve many navigational issues as vessels move across the shared maritime border.”

Registering Your Emergency Beacon May Save Your Life

February 14, 2017

Last year, 205 people in the U.S. were rescued at sea thanks to NOAA’s Search And Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) System. But those successful rescues would not have happened if the boat owners hadn’t previously registered their emergency beacons with NOAA.

That’s because NOAA is a part of COSPAS-SARSAT, a worldwide search and rescue program that relies on satellites and emergency beacons to detect and locate mariners, aviators, or individual adventurers in distress.

Here’s how NOAA describes the program:

COSPAS-SARSAT. . .uses a network of spacecraft to detect and locate distress signals quickly from emergency beacons employed on aircraft, boats, and from handheld personal locator beacons, or PLBs.

When a NOAA satellite pinpoints the location of a distress signal, the information is relayed to the SARSAT Mission Control Center at NOAA’s Satellite Operations Facility in Suitland, Maryland. From there, the information is quickly sent to a Rescue Coordination Center, operated by either the U.S. Air Force for land rescues or the U.S. Coast Guard for water rescues.

If the location of the beacon is in another country’s area of responsibility, then the alert is transmitted to that country’s mission control center.

Sea Rescues Lead the Pack

In 2016, SARSAT supported the rescues of 307 people in the United States—with waterborne incidents far outnumbering both aviation and land rescues. Here are the stats from NOAA-SARSAT:

  • Rescues at sea: 205 people rescued in 55 incidents
  • Aviation rescues: 23 people rescued in 15 incidents
  • Terrestrial PLB rescues: 79 people rescued in 62 incidents 

Keep Your Registration Current

Registering your emergency beacon is required by law. But, registering will help ensure you get the speedy assistance you need if you’re ever in distress. Before boating season hits, why not take a few minutes to make sure your beacon is registered and good-to-go?

To register or update your emergency beacon information, visit

Top Five Off-Season Activities for Boaters

January 17, 2017

Now that we’re knee-deep into the off-season, cabin fever has set in for many boating enthusiasts. If you’re one of the bored and the restless, fear not! Now is a great time to make sure your boat is in tip-top shape, learn some new boating skills, or experience new kinds of seafaring adventures.

Here’s our top five list of winter activities for boaters:

1. Prepare for Safety

  • Take an inventory of your safety gear and make any necessary purchases, repairs or upgrades. The U.S. Coast Guard offers a free pamphlet, “Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats,” that describes the various equipment you must have aboard your boat (contact the Coast Guard to request a copy). Keep in mind, however, that your state may have local safety requirements that go beyond the federal ones, so be sure to call your state boating office as well.
  • Take a course on boating safety, beef up your boat handling skills, or learn some new ones. By continuing your boating education, you’ll not only stave off cabin fever, you’ll also become a better, safer, more responsible boater. A wide variety of courses are available, which can be taken in-person or online. Check out this list of courses compiled by the U.S. Coast Guard’s boating safety division. Or find a class near you using the BoatU.S. Foundation’s Courseline search tool.

2. Fix Up Your Boat: Does your boat have any broken gears? Does the hull need paint? Have you been planning to install new equipment or upgrades? If you’ve been putting off any repair or restoration jobs, take these winter months to get them done. If you’re planning to have some (or all) of these tasks done for you, now is the time to find the right professionals and ensure everything is in ship-shape by boating season.

3. Update Your Nautical Charts: Because GPS is not foolproof, having paper charts on board is critical to ensure boating safety. But in order to be reliable, your charts must be up to date. And each year NOAA issues over 11,000 corrections to their suite of over 1,000 charts! Take some time this off-season to apply any needed updates to your nautical charts. Here are some resources for determining what changes you may need to make:

  • Review the Notice to Mariners, issued weekly by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to provide timely marine safety information for the correction of nautical charts.
  • Review the Local Notice to Mariners, issued weekly by the nine district Coast Guard offices to provide timely marine safety information including the correction of nautical charts, the US Coast Pilot, and the USCG Light List. 
  • If you don’t want to go through the effort of manually updating your chart (or you’re too busy with your boating safety class or your boat restoration projects!), you can simply order new, up-do-date charts at

4. Attend Boat Shows: Boating off-season is the best time of year to catch an indoor boat show. Whether or not you’re planning to make a purchase, you can spend many joyful hours feasting your eyes on beautiful boats, checking out the latest marine gear, and hobnobbing with other like-minded boating enthusiasts. Here’s a jam-packed list of upcoming boat shows.

Get On The Water: Winter doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go cold turkey! If you’ve got the time and the money, consider booking a vacation cruise. Or travel to a warmer location and charter a boat. Looking for a less pricey and less time-consuming way to get on the water? Go fishing! Here’s a top ten list of best winter fishing locations.

Less Than 15% of the World’s Seafloor Has Been Mapped. Can We Finish the Job?

November 6, 2016

atlantic-trenchWould it surprise you to know that more than 85% of the world’s seafloor has not been mapped with modern tools? That’s a pretty sorry statistic. And one that a group of scientists and mariners is trying to change.

In-depth knowledge of the world’s seafloor is important for a number of reasons. Mariners, for example, rely on modern mapping to plan and navigate safe pathways. More extensive seafloor mapping can help scientists, too. Take tsunamis, for example. Because the ocean floor guides their paths, more extensive mapping could help scientists better understand and monitor these often-destructive seismic waves. And because glaciers leave informative marks on the seafloor, more complete mapping could also give scientists better insights into our climate history. 

An Ambitious Plan

Earlier this year, the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO)—an organization of mariners and scientists affiliated with the United Nations—met in Monaco to work out a plan for mapping most of the world’s seafloor by 2030.

Let’s take a look at some of the key challenges, along with some promising steps. 


OCEAN SIZE: With 70% percent of the Earth covered in oceans, mapping most of the seafloor is a Herculean challenge to be sure. But with the right commitment from the right organizations, GEBCO’s goal is not out of reach.

Contractors that specialize in seafloor mapping do a lot of charting for governments and corporations. Although these contractors can’t share the mapping they’re hired to do, one such company, Fugro, has started mapping the seafloor along the expanses to and from its jobs—and plans to share its data with researchers. In the past year and half alone, Fugro has covered a lot of ground—mapping nearly 390,000 square miles of seafloor.

Think about it. That’s about 1/300th of the total deep seafloor area. Mapped by one company. In less than two years. Will more organizations step up to help out with this world effort?


COMPETITION: A lot of seafloor mapping is bought and paid for by governments and militaries, as well as by corporations involved in such things as offshore oil drilling and undersea cables. But because the mapping information they own provides them with a competitive edge, these organizations typically don’t make their charts public.

But alas, there’s hope in this area, too. As a result of its June meeting, GEBCO has succeeded at improving access to government and corporate information. For example, Quintillion, a cable company that pays for seafloor mapping, has agreed to release its data to NOAA. Negotiations with other entities are moving forward as well.


FUNDING: One estimate for mapping the seafloor puts the cost at about 3 billion dollars. So far, the money isn’t there.

But again, all hope is not lost.

Some organizations are stepping up to fund mapping projects. One such organization is The Nippon Foundation, a Japanese non-profit focused on social innovation, which also helped support the GEBCO meeting.

Various groups of oceanographers, explorers and researchers are helping out the effort as well—from mapping out areas of the seafloor and sharing the data with NOAA to conducting biological fieldwork and broadcasting helpful seafloor findings online.

Crowdsourcing projects, aimed at helping GEBCO reach its goal, are also taking hold. For example, Lieutenant Anthony Klemm, an officer aboard an NOAA research vessel, started a pilot project that lets mariners use a one-click software solution to share their own mapping data with the government, researchers and the public.


MAPPING TOOLS: In addition to the lack of funding, there’s also a dearth of properly equipped ships. Indeed, the key to accomplishing GEBCO’s 2030 mapping goal may rely on the development of new tools and technologies.

To that end, an organization called the XPrize Foundation is holding a competition, in two rounds over three years. The contest requires participating teams to create a mostly autonomous device that can map the seafloor and identify certain objects. The winning team will receive a $4 million prize, and three additional teams will be awarded $1 million each. Pretty good incentives for innovation!