Mapping the Fabled Northwest Passage

December 15, 2017

When Sarah Porter, a fourth-year student at the Marine Institute, was offered the opportunity to map the Northwest Passage this summer, she jumped at the chance.

“I was on a work term with the Centre for Applied Ocean Technology when my supervisor, Kirk Regular, offered me the opportunity to partner with the Canadian Hydrographic Service (CHS) to survey through the Northwest Passage using their new shallow water multibeam system, Norbit,” said Ms. Porter. “As a student, I was so fortunate to have been trusted with such an incredible project.”

The fabled passage, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Canadian Arctic, is one of the most unexplored areas of the ocean floor. Indeed, the last nautical chart production for the Northwest Passage is dated 1957.

As an ocean mapping and bachelor of technology student, Ms. Porter was well suited for the task. During the 28-day expedition, her job was to mobilize the Norbit system on a small boat and collect data during stops in Pond Inlet, Bellot Strait, and Cambridge Bay.

“To take a system, get familiar with it and its software, take it to the North and to survey areas that are unknown, with no charts, was an incredible experience,” she said.

Ms. Porter hopes the data she collected will be published at some point—and used to benefit boating activity in the North.

When the Northwest Passage was discovered in the mid-1800s, it was expected to provide a major shipping shortcut from Europe to Asia. Until recently, however, the presence of thick, year-round sea ice made the route virtually impassable—and extremely dangerous.

Today, however, average annual temperatures in the Arctic are warming, and the sea ice is melting. As a result, open water in the Northwest Passage is beginning earlier in the year and lasting longer. Although the passage is still not practical or safe for commercial shipping, there has been a recent increase in “destinational” traffic—small boats, private yachts, and occasional cruise ships.

As the ice continues to melt in the Northwest Passage, and vessel traffic continues to increase, sea floor mapping will play a crucial role—both for the safety of mariners and the health of the environment.

“I love the ocean and I really enjoy discovering the unknown underneath,” said Ms. Porter. “I think it’s crucial to know what our sea floor is all about.”




My Favorite Chart Format

December 4, 2017

Bob Sweet, Senior Navigator

So many charts! So many formats! How do you choose?

Selecting the right charts to cover your route is only half the battle. Once that’s done, you need to choose your formats. Do you want your charts rolled or would you rather have them folded? Mapfold, trifold or folio? Waterproof or water-resistant?

It’s nice to have choices. But too many options can be paralyzing.

In the end, we just need a format that works the way we want, when we want it. Something that’s easy to pick out and use.

I’ve used all the chart formats for various situations, but there is one format that sticks out way ahead of the others. OceanGrafix calls it the “Small Format” chart.

Five Reasons to Love the Small Format Chart:

  1. SIZE: At 21-inches wide, small format charts are perfect for use at the helm, on a chart table, or even on your lap. Even though the width is less than the full-size NOAA charts (which are typically 36 inches), you need not worry that information is missing. The small format chart is split and printed on both sides, with a large overlap. To find the rest, just flip it over.
  2. SCALE: They are not rescaled like the charts you’ll find in chartbooks and many waterproof formats. Small format charts are full size—which means the scale is consistent with your plotting tools. They are also easy to read, with no squinting to read reduced-size copy.
  3. FOLD: Small format charts come pre-folded like a map, which is great for a couple reasons. Closed, the title and chart number are right on the top, so it’s easy to pick out the one you want. Plus, you can stack a whole bunch of charts in a relatively small space—and quickly pull out just what you need.
  4. DESIGN: They are flip-fold—and printed North-up, with the long dimension along the shoreline—so you can open up the chart to just where you need it. Assuming you’re running along the shore, the small format chart will always unfold along your path.
  5. PAPER: Printed on quality, water-resistant paper, these are durable charts. You can write on them to plot courses or make notes (which you can’t do on your chartplotter)—or just glance ahead for interesting places to view or visit. And because they aren’t printed until you order them, they always have the latest information.



When Hurricanes Strike, NOAA Helps Speed Re-Opening of Ports

October 29, 2017

After a damaging storm, ports will only operate when it is safe for navigation.

When a hurricane hits, the U.S. Coast Guard calls on NOAA navigation response teams to conduct emergency hydrographic services—to map the ocean floor for hidden debris or shoaling that might pose a danger to navigation. Their work is essential to speeding the re-opening of ports and waterways.

According to the Office of Coast Survey, the faster NOAA teams can notify USCG of its findings, the faster the ports can re-open and resume shipping—allowing goods and services to enter.


Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on September 21, 2017, wreaking havoc on the infrastructure of many critical ports—and preventing vessels with critical fuel supplies and commodities from entering safely.

On September 23, NOAA’s mobile integrated survey team (MIST)—which can set up equipment and manpower quickly on a vessel of opportunity—arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to conduct emergency hydrographic surveys in the Port of Arecibo, an important fuel and chemical port.

NOAA Photo Library Photo Credit: ship1010

On September 24, while the MIST was conducting its emergency surveys, NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson—a hydrographic survey vessel that maps the ocean—departed Port Everglades, Florida, for San Juan. Upon its arrival on September 28, Thomas Jefferson deployed its launches and delivered supplies to NOAA’s National Weather Service at the USCG small boat pier.

But Thomas Jefferson’s mission didn’t stop there. The ship was also tasked with the following duties:

  • Providing equipment needed to repair the NOAA tide gauge station in San Juan
  • Traveling to Ponce, a large city on Puerto Rico’s southern coast, to deploy launches to survey the deep draft channel—a crucial step to re-opening the port
  • Performing a complete side scan sonar survey to locate a crane that was potentially knocked into the water during the storm and to check for any other obstructions in the channel and port
  • Conducting additional survey operations, based on USCG priority, to help re-open ports from Puerto Rico to St. Croix
  • Conducting surveys to update charts in the affected areas

“NOAA is really proud that the Thomas Jefferson has arrived in Puerto Rico to help the United States Coast Guard and the local port authorities to restore the full capacity of the island’s sea ports,” said Rear Adm. Shepard Smith, director of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey. “The people of Puerto Rico need the transportation infrastructure restored to bring relief to the stricken and rebuild their lives after this tragic storm.”

How to Select Charts: A Cheat Sheet for Boaters

October 15, 2017

NOAA has a massive library of charts, which they continually update. With so many charts available, how do you know which ones you’ll need?

Here are two key pointers to get you started:

  • Get only the charts you need. Clearly, your charts should cover the entire route you will travel. But since for many boaters there’s a storage issue (as well as costs) associated with charts, you don’t want to load up on more than you actually need.
  • Ensure your charts are up to date. Charts are continuously being updated based on information from a variety of sources. Depending on the area of boating, you should consider updating your charts regularly.

We’ve created the “cheat sheet” below to help you select the right charts for your next voyage.

Chart Selection By Region


  1. Get each of the 1:80,000 scale charts between your starting point and intended destination.
    Explanation: 1:80,000 scale charts provide end-to-end coverage from the Canadian border in Maine to the Mexican border in Texas. Each offers about 50 miles of coverage along the coast. They are presented North-Up (which makes it easier to “get your bearings”) and provide sufficient detail for safely navigating in the near coastal area they cover.
  2. Optionally, select more detailed charts for harbors you intend to visit.
    Explanation: There are more detailed charts (e.g. 1:40,000, 1:20,000, 1:10,000, or even 1:5,000 scales in some places) that provide coverage along the way. These charts mainly provide supplemental coverage of local harbors or regions. You may also want these more detailed charts for those harbors you intend to visit along the way.
  3. If you intend on traveling the ICW, select the corresponding 1:40,000 scale strip charts.
    Explanation: In some places, more detailed charts of 1:40,000 scale provide contiguous end-to-end coverage. They are rotated to align with the shoreline, focus near the coastline, and include the ICW. They don’t need much width, so they are printed end-to-end, side-by-side, to double the overall length of coverage. If you intend on taking the ICW, add the appropriate 1:40,000 charts to your list.



  1. Get each of the end-to-end contiguous charts (generally around 1:200,000 scale) between your starting point and intended destination.
    Explanation: Much of the Pacific coastline is devoid of harbors in Washington, Oregon and California—so there’s little reason for NOAA to provide detailed charts. Therefore, the end-to-end contiguous charts are generally around 1:200,000 scale in these areas. If this is part of your planned voyage, you’ll want these charts—each of which is presented North-Up and covers 100-150 nautical miles North-South.
  2. Optionally, select more detailed charts for harbors you intend to visit.
    Explanation: For those few harbors along the way, there are more detailed charts. Given the distance between them, you’ll probably want to get all of those you consider stopovers.
  3. If you intend on cruising the Puget Sound or interior Washington and the region, select the appropriate 1:40,000 scale charts.
    Explanation: There are lots of charts available for these areas. Your decision of which to get will be based on which waterways you intend to traverse and which islands and harbors you will visit. The larger area coverage is best reflected in 1:40,000 scale charts.
  4. If you’re planning to visit any islands off the coast of California, you don’t need any additional charts.
    Explanation: There are a number of islands, such as the Channel Islands off San Francisco, Catalina and San Clemente, where 1:20,000 scale charts are available. However, since these islands are all well within the coverage of the respective 1:200,000 scale coastal charts, you don’t really need them.



  1. Get each of the contiguous charts between your starting point and intended destination.
    Explanation: The contiguous charts are 1:120,000 scale, North-Up in Lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior, and 1:80,000 in Lakes Erie and Ontario. NOAA creates charts for the U.S. side, and CHS (Canadian Hydrographic Service) creates charts for the Canadian side. The CHS charts provide contiguous North-Up coverage and vary from around 1:20,000 to around 1:80,000 scale.

Do a lot of boating in various US regions? If you boat locally in a number of regions around the country, you may want to consider getting one of NOAA’s small-craft folios. Each folio contains a collection of charts showing the extended shorelines in various scales and orientations, with generally greater detail than is available on other charts.


NOAA Proposes National Marine Sanctuary to Preserve Historic Shipwrecks in Lake Michigan

October 4, 2017

Thunder Bay 2010 Expedition, NOAA-OER (expl4133)

In Lake Michigan, a 1,075 square-mile area spanning Wisconsin’s shoreline is home to a historic graveyard of sunken ships. NOAA is proposing to designate the area as a national marine sanctuary.

According to NOAA, “The shipwrecks in this proposed sanctuary represent a cross-section of vessel types that played critical roles in the expansion of the United States and the development of the Midwest during the 19th and early 20th centuries. During this period entrepreneurs and shipbuilders launched tens of thousands of ships of many different designs, with eastbound ships carrying grain and raw materials, and westbound vessels carrying coal, manufactured goods, and settlers.”

“These shipwrecks really tell us the history of how shipping was the engine of the American economy,” said Russ Green, NOAA regional coordinator. “There’s a huge legacy of risk, sometimes tragedy, personal stories of innovation, entrepreneurship—all locked into this proposed area.”

The proposed sanctuary site includes:

  • 37 known historic shipwrecks, 18 of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places
  • About 80 potential shipwrecks yet to be discovered
  • Wisconsin’s two oldest shipwrecks, dating to the 1830s

What’s more, many of the shipwrecks in Lake Michigan are still in relatively good shape—thanks to the cold, salt-free water, which helps preserve iron and wood, as well as the cold temperature, which helps prevent deterioration.

According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, “Divers have found many [of the sunken ships] with masts still standing, unbreached hulls, and even one with nautical charts still stowed in the drawers of the wheelhouse—something that would be unlikely in ocean waters.”

Unfortunately, a population explosion of zebra mussels (which cling to the sunken ships and rapidly reproduce) poses a serious risk to the structural integrity of the ships.

But the zebra mussels aren’t all bad. Because they can filter a liter of water a day, they’ve helped improve the water clarity. In fact, since their introduction in 1990, underwater visibility has improved from 5-10 feet up to 80-100 feet. The improved clarity in the lake makes it easier to find new shipwrecks, as well as to view and study them.

If the Wisconsin site receives national marine sanctuary designation, it would bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal resources each year. It would be the first national marine sanctuary in Lake Michigan and the second in the Great Lakes.

According to NOAA, the proposed national marine sanctuary designation does not include restrictions on commercial or recreational fishing. The scope of the proposed sanctuary regulations are narrowly focused on maritime heritage resources.

NOAA is expected to make its decision on the proposal by next year. Before the designation would become effective, Governor Scott Walker has 30 days to review the documents.

OceanGrafix Continues Support of Young Mariners via Donated Charts

September 24, 2017

The latest ship in use by this scout group, Sea Scout Ship 243 is a 65’ US Navy patrol boat.

While everyone has heard of the Boy Scouts of America, most are not familiar with its Sea Scouts program. For over 100 years, the Sea Scouts have focused on educating youth (ages 14 to 21) about seamanship, boating skills and maritime history.

Member Doug Temple has donated his time to the Sea Scouts for over 40 years and feels strongly about teaching the youth of America about boating safety and navigation rules. “A lot of knowledge has been lost over time,” says Doug. “States require a safety course, but they don’t go into the details that we do. We teach kids knowledge they don’t get elsewhere, like how to read a chart and how to get from one point to the next. We even teach them how to use stars for navigational purposes.”

Although enrollment in the program waned throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the Sea Scouts are making a comeback of sorts and reactivating one of the program’s ships. Doug credits the Elks Lodge #1075 for helping to make it happen. As the official sponsor of the Sea Scouts, the Elks provide funding, help with fundraisers and provide a location for meetings.

As navigation plays an important role in the Sea Scouts curriculum, Doug and his team were also in need of navigational charts. OceanGrafix was happy to oblige, providing the requested complimentary charts to the program.

Says Doug, “Nautical charts are a wonderful thing. If you’re on a body of water, you can look on the chart and see exactly where you are. For instance, if you pass a buoy on the water, you can locate that buoy on a chart and determine where you are. Paper charts provide you with the big-picture perspective you can’t really get from electronic tools.”

If you’re interested in learning more or helping the Sea Scouts financially, you can check out their Facebook page.

5 Common Boating Mistakes to Avoid

September 4, 2017

Some boating mishaps are unavoidable. Mechanical issues and other internal problems, for example, can make for a horrible day on the water—but they can’t always be foreseen. On the other hand, many mistakes can be easily avoided with a little forethought.

Here are 5 common boating mistakes—and tips for avoiding them:

Mistake 1: Forgetting to Plug the Boat Drain

TIP: Don’t forget to plug the drain in your boat (and keep in mind that some boats today have more than one drain you’ll need to plug). It may seem silly to even mention this mistake, but every year boats fill with water from this embarrassing mishap. To ensure a day of smooth sailing, make a list of things to double-check on your boat while you’re at the launch.

Mistake 2: Being Slow at the Launch

TIP: Okay, this isn’t really a boating mistake. But being slow at the launch does create a rushed, pressured environment that will likely lead you to forget something important. For new boaters in particular (who may not have mastered the art of backing a boat down the launch), a little practice can help a lot. Set up some cones in your driveway and practice moving around while towing the boat. You’ll feel much more confident when you show up to launch.

Remember, of course, never to run your boat engine on land. Without a water supply, you are sure to overheat.

Mistake 3: Uncontrolled Wake

TIP: There’s nothing worse than being in a canoe or small boat and getting smashed by huge waves that will inevitably push you off your course. As a boater, slowing down the speed of your boat is not enough to ensure a smaller wake. Understanding how to balance the plane and minimize your waves is a useful—and welcomed—skill. Be respectful of others on the water so everyone can have a fun and safe day.

Mistake 4: Letting Out Too Little Anchoring Line

TIP: Finding a sweet spot on the water and taking time to relax there is one of the pleasures of recreational boating. But continuously drifting from your anchor point can be frustrating. The trick is to let out the right amount of line. Boating Safety Mag offers this helpful tip: “Remember that the amount of line needed to anchor a vessel (called scope) should be 5 to 7 times the depth of the water in calm weather, plus the distance from the surface to where the anchor attaches at the bow. If high winds or rough sea conditions are present, then use 10 times the depth. Fail to use the proper scope and your vessel may drag anchor and drift ashore, into other vessels or – worst case – out to sea!”

Mistake 5: Forgetting Your Nautical Charts

TIP: All too often these days, boaters overlook nautical charts and depend instead on GPS. While GPS is a fantastic and useful tool, this technology does not negate the multiple reasons for needing nautical charts, including when the unexpected happens. At a minimum, paper charts should be carried as a complement to electronics.