Charts are about to change in a big way. The paper charts we’ve used for decades are going away. So, too, are their electronic cousins, called Raster Navigational Charts. That leaves us only with vector charts, otherwise known as Electronic Navigational Charts—and we’re at a point in the changeover process when every boater needs to contribute information, to make these charts as good as they can be.
To understand why, you have to learn a bit about the technological evolution that got us here.
We now have GPS on our helm electronics, tablets and phones, but GPS only tells us where we are, not what’s there. We had raster charts to tell us what’s there, but in the early days of chartplotters, the raster chart file sizes were far too large for the slow processors and meager memory we could afford.
Vector charts thus began life as “tracings” of the printed chart. Shorelines, depth contours and the like were made up from short, little line segments. Soundings and places were points with a location and perhaps a number, a name and some information—all data. The net result was a compact file, with anything on land left more or less blank.
The vector chart was a savior for commercial mariners, who are required to keep their paper charts up-to-date. Vector charts let them load the data changes into the files. The Electronic Chart and Display Information System became an acceptable alternative to paper charts; under the Safety of Life at Sea treaties, standards were formed to suit the oceangoing ships so they no longer needed paper charts at all.
That development put the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the dual chart business: paper for some, electronic for others. NOAA found itself having to maintain both types of charts until finally, in 2020, the agency decided it was time to narrow the field.
But that narrowing came with challenges, too. When NOAA originally created the database of vector charts, it had to comply with the International Hydrographic Association’s S-57 standard. That meant converting figures to metric, and only copying certain features. Since the standard was based on the needs of oceangoing vessels, a lot of features from the paper charts were left off.
To do away with the dual system, NOAA needed to create a paper chart using the vector database. The agency developed an application called NOAA Custom Chart that any boater can use to create a PDF chart for printing. The first version of NOAA Custom Chart was released this past April.
The good news with NOAA Custom Chart is that you can now create a custom chart at a scale you select for printing on various sizes of paper, for any location in the database.
The bad news is that these charts, relying upon the database, are missing a lot of information. NOAA’s team knows this, and has set up means for users to input corrections and comments.
After fixes are made, these charts can be really excellent. But the required fixes are substantial—and we’re all going to have to do our part to make sure the fixes actually happen.
NOAA Custom Chart converts international symbols to the NOAA symbols we have used all along, which is helpful, but the database lacks much of the information that a recreational boater relies upon. That missing information includes landmarks and land-based topography that help you find your way. NOAA says it plans to go back and trace that information.
Another flaw is that many of the navigation aids and hazards have no labels, so you don’t know what you are looking at, or its details. On a chartplotter, you can scroll to any feature, and a screen pops up with details. On a printed chart, what you see is what you get. There is no more.
Yet another problem is that the database is in meters. You can choose an option to print in feet, but that requires the system to make a double conversion—feet on paper to meters in the database back to feet. So, what was originally a 6-foot contour line comes back as a 5-foot contour line. And, all of the soundings are similarly reduced by a foot. If you are a recreational boater, a foot can be a big deal. Also, presently, all heights are in meters, but NOAA intends to fix that.
The final issue is, how do we get these charts printed? There will be no more chart numbers, no more folio charts. Charts are prepared without insets, so you need to get them yourself. And the “strip” charts that follow the coastline, such as along the Intracoastal Waterway, will no longer be created.
How we go about selecting charts from now on is a subject for a future article, and a mission for those companies that print charts and chartbooks. But they will all be looking at NOAA Custom Chart as the new baseline, so go into the system and give it a try. Let’s all join in to make it better.