NOAA Is Phasing Out Paper Nautical Charts and Seeking Public Comment

Sorry for the short notice, everyone, but The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, is seeking public comment on the “sunsetting” process by which paper charts will be phased out. You have a week to comment.

“NOAA is initiating a five-year process to end all traditional paper nautical chart production and is seeking the public’s feedback via a Federal Register Notice,” a statement on the NOAA website said. “Chart users, companies that provide products and services based on NOAA raster and electronic navigational chart products, and other stakeholders can help shape the manner and timing in which the product sunsetting process will proceed. Comments may be submitted through NOAA’s online ASSIST feedback tool.”

Comments must be submitted by February 1. Again, sorry for the short notice. We’re curious how you feel about this move, what kinds of charts you use, and what kinds of backups you have. We’ll ask a few questions below.

Sure, electronic charts are convenient, updatable, and even cheaper. (Is that actually true?) But if you love sailing, you probably love paper charts, such as this rendering of our beloved Central Bay.
© 2020 NOAA

Production will ultimately be shut down for “all raster chart products and services associated with traditional NOAA paper nautical charts, including: Print-on-demand (POD) paper nautical charts, Full-size chart PDFs, NOAA raster navigational charts, BookletChart PDFs, NOAA RNC tile service, and Online RNC viewer.” NOAA said that these products will be phased out starting in mid- to late 2020 and be completed by January 2025.

NOAA said that since 2008, there’s been a 425% increase in the sale of electronic navigational charts, or ENCs, while sales of paper charts have dropped by half, “similar to the transition from road atlases to GPS navigation systems that we have witnessed in this digital era.” In addition, NOAA is in the midst of a multi-year program to improve its ENC coverage “by replacing over 1,200 irregularly shaped ENC cells, compiled in over 130 different scales, with a standard gridded layout of ENCs, compiled in just a dozen standard scales. This will increase the number of ENC cells to about 9,000 and significantly improve the level of detail and consistency among ENCs.”

For some of us old-school sailors, or for those of us who prefer a few analog systems, our question is, “What do you use as a backup if your electronics fail?”

“The NOAA Custom Chart (NCC) application enables users to create their own charts from the latest NOAA ENC data,” NOAA said. Users are able to define the scale and paper size of custom-made nautical charts centered on a position of their choosing. “NCC then creates a geospatially referenced Portable Document Format (GeoPDF) image of a nautical chart. Chart notes and other marginalia are placed on a separate PDF page. Users may then download, view, and print the output. NCC is an easy way to create a paper or digital backup for electronic chart systems or other Global Positioning System (GPS) enabled chart displays.”

Top and bottom, a comparison of NOAA Chart ‘16204’ and the corresponding NOAA Custom Chart. “Although it looks a bit different from a traditional NOAA chart, NCCs show the latest data as compiled in the NOAA ENCs. The prototype is in the early phases of development and many improvements are needed to make NCC a viable replacement for traditional paper nautical charts. We hope you will try out the NOAA Custom Chart prototype and tell us what you think through NOAA’s online ASSIST feedback tool.”)
© 2020 NOAA

Tell us about how you use charts, and how you feel about the end of paper charts.

Do you write notes directly on your charts as you’re at sea and nosing around the coast of somewhere? Do you have charts framed around your house, or otherwise employed as art or ambience? (Are electronic charts ultimately cheaper than their paper kin?) Please send us some pictures via email, or comment below.

27 Comments

  1. Avatar
    peter metcalf 6 months ago

    I guess it’s fine so long as your electronics are in good order. The question becomes, what would compromise electronics? I’m interested in people’s experiences as well as hypothetical situations based on readers’ knowledge, not to mention the possibility of interference through cyber warfare.

    I haven’t used any chart for 15 years, but I learned in school about a ship that lost all electronic nav instruments at the same time. Fortunately, one of the officers was skilled with celestial.

  2. Avatar
    tr 6 months ago

    I can understand phasing back on inventory or even all pre-printed charts. But it seems that facilitating POD should be a priority. I was glad to see the discussion about software to create and print a custom map. But for some, getting large scale maps printed is not straightforward

  3. Avatar
    Chuck Cunningham 6 months ago

    This is another example of the present Administration cutting costs to support favored private enterprises. The NOAA/NWS was under attack by an appointed Cabinet officer who was attempting to privatize the Weather Service. As a TransPac Safety Inspector we have to see that entrants all carry paper charts. Personally, my trips up the Delta are a combination of chart plotter/GPS and paper charts to check off each channel marker. How many times has electronics failed due to battery failure?

  4. Avatar
    Tan Toes 6 months ago

    I attempted to leave a comment at NOAAs ASSIST page, but it doesn’t work. I guess they don’t really want to know what we think about this. I don’t use a chart plotter. I have a few inexpensive GPS units, that only give lat/long, paper charts and a depth finder. I’ve cruised using this technology for decades. I don’t trust electronics 100%, ergo multiple GPS units plus I know celestial navigation.

    In addition to plotting course and speed on my paper charts, which I don’t think you can do with a chart plotter, I also make notes of places with good anchorages, places to go shopping, etc. I’ve always exchanged these paper charts, with notes with cruisers going where I’ve just come from and they pass their charts with similar notes.

  5. Avatar
    Tim Dick 6 months ago

    Paper will always be more reliable than electronic. Most ocean boats (and ships) carry 3 to 4 different sets of charts: 1. The electronic chart the chartplotter uses. 2. Backup mapping GPS. 3. Paper charts. 4. Paper chart guides & cruising guides. When the power fails and the batteries are dead, paper still works. (I will send this in to NOAA)

    • Avatar
      David Barten 6 months ago

      Tim – Benneteu 41 Sausalito?? I think you were my neighbor at Pelican (Sea Whisper)

  6. Avatar
    Andy Kurtz 6 months ago

    I NEVER go to sea without paper charts to back up the multiple electronic systems on my boat… lost all my electronics more than once over the last 20+ years I have been using GPS charting. My paper charts always work, I actually use paper a lot even with 3 electronic chart plotters onboard. Paper for the overall (small scale) view and the electronics for details.
    Stocking all the available charts is obviously expensive for NOAA, but I think stopping the print on demand service is a really bad idea. How many home printers are accurate enough to print a chart for navigational use? I hope they have considered this and found that most printers will be fine… at least when used with a good set of mark II eyeballs…

  7. Avatar
    Redrider 6 months ago

    The same thing is happening in general aviation and I don’t see to many pilots complaining.
    Paper is 19th century technology.
    Modern electronic charts are easier to read, they show your position, calculate VMG, SOG, distance to destination, time to destination., current.
    Join the 21st century

  8. Avatar
    Harvey Black 6 months ago

    I have boated for 40 years, 20 of which I used a Chart Plotter too. During my entire boating experience, I have always had a paper chart on the ready. For the last 20 years I have navigated by Chart plotter but always with the applicable paper chart at the helm. My travels have been at least a dozen times up the Northwest Pacific Coast to the Central B.C. coast, circumnavigated Vancouver Is. and once to Glacier Bay, AK. I always had the applicable chart by the Chart Plotter and usually found it necessary to refer to the paper chart at least twice each cruising day. God protects children and fools and I hope to say that I am neither.

  9. Avatar
    Kevin 6 months ago

    I am a new sailor and don’t have years of experience. My feedback is if people can download a reliable pdf version of what they want and print it at a print shop I don’t think it is a big deal if NOAA is not printing them. What ever is downloaded needs to be of high enough quality that people can trust it for navigation. I am using opencpn on my tablet that uses NOAA digital charts. I did purchase some paper charts from NOAA for the area I am in for hard copy backup but I have not had a reason to look at them yet. If the PDF version is of high enough quality I could have printed them at a print shop.

    • Avatar
      David Barten 6 months ago

      I understand your comments and why they make sense that you mention you are a new sailor. What is different at sea and why the NOAA printed charts are of great value , something you likely have heard “PPI” and “DPI” all of great importance when reading fine print. Additionally inkjet solutions can print a chart from your PDF anywhere in the world in minutes. And none of that is worth the milliamps in your laptop PSU when trying to read fine print on a wet chart in a rolling seaway. Inks run, clarity suffers, cheap paper disolves, mildew consumes… I have NOAA printed charts more than 20 years old still readable and navigation capable, having had them get wet and dry off more times than I can remember. The NOAA charts are sea worthy. My Chart Store reprints are good, not as good, Kinkos printed from PDF is likely fine to hang on the wall in your office.. JMHO…

    • Avatar
      Jesse Goff 6 months ago

      David Barten, Anyone can get prints of far higher quality that what NOAA prints. You can get a chart printed on outdoor polyester with oil based solvent inks. It will roll up, will not fade and is totally waterproof. As in you can put it in a bathtub of water for weeks and it dries off. You just have to order the right kind of media.

  10. Avatar
    Captain Stanty 6 months ago

    Absolutely terrible! If you trust your soul to electronics, don’t get wet. It’s absurd. All mariners should know the fail safe importance of paper charts and how to properly us the them. As a USSAILING Coastal Navigation Instructor, I can easily state that most sailors are completely dependent on electronics, and will be left floundering without paper charts. Absolutely terrible!

  11. Avatar
    John Tebbetts 6 months ago

    I do the vast majority of my navigating using tablets. But I still keep paper charts onboard (numerous portfolios) and almost always have a chart of the area I’m cruising on the chart table. Depending on how close I am to hazards I generally plot my position anywhere from every 12 or 24 hours (well offshore) to every hour (in unfamiliar waters) or more frequently in some circumstances. It seems to me that as long as paper charts are available somewhere this is somewhat academic. I think it’s too bad, but the economics are such that it’s probably inevitable. Paper charts from NOAA have been extremely expensive for many years and I haven’t purchased one in decades, despite cruising very actively. It seems to me that as long as we can buy charts from printers those of us who use paper charts will be just fine.

  12. Avatar
    David Barten 6 months ago

    Any skipper without a paper chart of his home waters is questionable in competence and preparedness, Same for the skipper who sets out without paper charts of everywhere he intends to voyage. How many of use spent our childhoods (and adult lives) pouring over charts planning trips, looking up legends, revisiting voyages on old charts marked with bearings, plots, and siting notes. Sad that the only thing NOAA will get funding for now is charting the small pools of water gathered at the foot of the boarder wall and indicating where ladders are most frequently used, and the well worn paths to and from Home Depot where they buy ladders… Maybe we can follow the lead of another nation who might pick up these broken pieces of cornerstones the United States once planted and maintained all over the world… Why ? Because it was there, it was possible, and THE RIGHT THING TO DO! and now we buy concrete…

  13. Avatar
    J D Myers 6 months ago

    Having hard-copy charts is a matter of safety and simplicity. Electronics fail, and at the worst moment. After 35 years of being on the water, I have found you must be able to rely on yourself and manual navigation skills. This elimination is purely economic, and I believe it has no impact except at the lowest level (where I live).

    Ok, paper charts are printable; but for someone who does not do this every day, learning and wading through all of the snag-prone technology, presents significant barriers to obtaining a PDF the print shop can produce (said the engineer) . Obtaining printed copy charts must be easy and accessible. I want to buy a printed chart, not learn a new career skill.

    Make printed versions available on Amazon (they may be, I haven’t looked). Amazon understands how to sell and distribute specialty products. The government does not.

  14. Avatar
    Greg Carter 6 months ago

    Chartplotters & other GPS systems have become quite robust and relatively trustworthy. But boat power systems generally do not change as vessels age, and we’re all susceptible to failures in power supply to those electronic charts. We’re expected to sail our boats if we lose electricity supply. Same should be expected for navigating them. For this reason I’ll be commenting to NOAA they have an obligation to continue easy-to-execute print on demand services. Centralized large-format printing is a smart American move, rather than expect citizens to keep big, rarely used printers at home. Common sense should prevail.

  15. Avatar
    Nick Pigati 6 months ago

    All I can say is wait until you’re out in unfamiliar waters and instruments all go out….

    I have been on the water for years and I have always carried charts wherever I was cruising to.

    Another issue is that many boaters can barely afford to get out on the water. Their only means of relatively accurate navigation is an old fashioned paper chart.

    Greg Carter makes very good points as well.

    Eliminating availability is total nonsense.

  16. Avatar
    Jesse Goff 6 months ago

    This does not phase out paper charts. NOAA just doesn’t want to print them anymore. You can convert an ENC file to a PDF and email it to a printer that prints wide format architectural plans. They will print it and ship it for less money and you can do it on waterproof paper.

    • Avatar
      Jesse Goff 6 months ago

      PAPER CHARTS WILL STILL BE AVAILABLE.

  17. Avatar
    Barry Stompe 6 months ago

    I have always raced and cruised with paper charts. We have a chart plotter, but, all our notes and plots go on the paper chart. NOAA is offering better charts that can be downloaded in different scales, specific areas of your choice, for free. You can use them electronically or have them printed (at a print shop like architects, engineers and builders use) for a fraction of the price NOAA charges. If you want better paper, I’m sure it can be done and would be interested if anyone can provide details on that.

    • Avatar
      Jesse Goff 6 months ago

      There are thousands of different types of media. You could get a chart printed on plain bond paper (cheap), cotton watercolor paper, canvas, metal and the list goes on. But what you should order is a print on a matte acrylic based photo paper printed with a solvent printer. Solvent printers print with oil inks instead of aqueous (water based). Oil based canvas print would never rip.

  18. Avatar
    Alan Test 6 months ago

    The charts need to be available at least to print out. What happens when electricity and internet are down. Would never sail out of sight of land without a paper chart and a compass.

  19. Avatar
    Bert Felton 6 months ago

    Phasing out paper charts completely is incredibly short sighted. Depending soley on anything electric in a marine environment is fool hardy.

  20. Avatar
    Karin R. Williams 6 months ago

    I used to crew on a Knarr, and then was on the StFYC Race Committee. My house has a great view of the Bay and SF. But you don’t really know what you’re looking at unless you have a chart! I have some placemats which are charts of the Bay but they are no longer obtainable. Please tell me where I can obtain charts. West Marine falls short in this respect. I want to show visitors why vessels sail where they do. An electronic device is no substitute for a nautical chart that everyone can look at, and even draw on. ~ Please reply ~ Thank you!

  21. Avatar
    Karin R. Williams 6 months ago

    I already submitted a comment but made a correction at the last minute which may have interfered with its transmission. Please advise whether you have received it. Thank you!

  22. Avatar
    Joshua 5 months ago

    All replies thus far present the worst case scenario of losing all electronics while underway. I think we need to reiterate the importance of using paper charts IN CONJUNCTION with electronic charts. GPS technology and the chart plotters that utilize it are in deed as solid of technology as any (electric that is). But we need to remember the limitations of the smaller screens on the chart plotters them selves! A few years back I recall some very experienced sailors meeting their fate during the Newport to Ensenada ( if I recall correctly) race. They sailed straight into a small island. Theories suggested not that their was a failure in their electronics but that in not zooming in far enough they missed the island and plotted a course directly into it. Please understand I am in no way attacking their tactics, skill or experience but rather hope that their story is not forgotten and helps to save lives in the future. Large easily read paper charts serve to provide an absolute picture of the hazards they may be missed on our small screens and need to be readily available to the small group that require them. (I may have fully misunderstood the facts of this incident but even if that’s the case one can see the scenario easily unfolding.)

Leave a Comment

Sponsored Post
This is Ace, he went missing from my Catalina 400. I'm trying to track down this spinnaker featuring my dog Ace for sentimental reasons. It was sold with my boat back in the 1900s.