Charts are about to change in a big way, and it’s not necessarily good for boaters.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has put in motion a five-year plan to end the production of paper nautical charts. For years, NOAA has been maintaining two parallel sets of charts—paper and digital—at great expense. As digital charts have become dominant, the production of paper charts has slowed.

Today, the vector digital chart is primary, and the paper chart and its digital raster charts are updated to match. NOAA’s plan is to focus on the vector digital chart, which is created to international standards for Electronic Charting and Display Information Systems (ECDIS) that commercial mariners with redundant systems use instead of paper charts.

Presumably, recreational boaters will be able to obtain printed copies of these electronic charts, but they won’t look anything like what we have been using. And, because we are not commercial mariners, we don’t have ECDIS aboard. Our needs are different.

If you have a chartplotter, do you still need paper charts? The short answer is yes. A chartplotter is but a small window to the world; if you zoom in, you can see only a few miles, and if you zoom out, you can’t really see detail. A paper chart provides the big and small pictures, and never breaks down. Paper is its own safety net.

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And even if you can print the new charts, another issue is what may not be shown. NOAA, as part of international treaties, creates compatible charts. This approach led to the vector Electronic Navigational Chart that NOAA now offers. These charts lack much of the detail that we recreational boaters have long used to keep us safe and on course.

In general, vector charts are better for navigating on a chartplotter because they are simpler, and because all of the data scales to remain readable as you zoom in. The raster (or paper) chart is better for planning and checking because it has a great deal more detail. Both are good, but we may not be safe enough without the detail.

And because the format of these new charts is driven by international electronic display standards, it may confuse U.S. boaters. For example, the core vector data presents depths in meters, not feet. Recreational boaters operate in shallower waters than commercial vessels, so the shorter dimension of a foot versus a meter is key. (NOAA does plan to offer printing of these charts in feet, but the pressure to transition to meters will continue.)

Another, even greater, concern is the use of ECDIS symbols. They are quite different from what we have used for a hundred years. These symbols were designed for large electronic displays, not for paper. On a digital display, you can scroll over an object to obtain more information. On the paper equivalent, what you see is what you get. These symbols are unfamiliar and more difficult to interpret.

Perhaps the biggest shortfall is lack of detail, particularly on land. Boaters rely on landmarks to help determine position. The vector charts are largely devoid of these details. A great deal of other useful information from paper charts also disappears on the new charts.

These changes will have a host of other unintended consequences. All navigation textbooks and training sessions will need to be revised. The whole concept of chart scales may be lost. Digital charts that blur the content could lead to groundings.

You can offer your opinion and recommendations to NOAA. Its plan is at nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/publications/docs/raster-sunset.pdf

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