Paper Navigation Charts Set To Be Phased Out by 2026
The UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) has announced that it will stop producing paper nautical navigational charts. The organization, which provides hydrographic and marine geospatial data to mariners and maritime organizations across the world, says the move is in response to “more marine, naval and leisure users primarily using digital products and services for navigation.”
Sailor Tom Cunliffe wrote in Yachts & Yachting, “As a man whose navigation pre-dates GPS by decades, I suppose my knee-jerk reaction to this was predictable.”
“… My first call when passage planning is the paper chart. It’s big. I can see where I’m going and make sensible decisions regarding routing. If I want detail it doesn’t deliver, I can resort to the plotter for specific areas, and when I’m executing the passage both are in use for the same reasons. Paper chart and plotter used together intelligently create a marriage made in heaven. It gives us all any pilot has wanted since Noah ran ashore on Mount Ararat.”
Cunliffe has sailed thousands of miles and across almost every ocean. After learning to sail as a teenager, he quit college and embarked on a sailing career, much of which he has recorded in journals and books that span his decades on the water. We get the feeling his opnion is valid, and likely shared by mariners around the world. So why, then, are paper charts being phased out?
UKHO’s statement added that the phasing out of paper charts will take place over a number of years, with an anticipated conclusion in 2026. They write that the “ADMIRALTY Maritime Data Solutions digital navigation portfolio can be updated in near real-time, greatly enhancing safety of life at sea (SOLAS).”
But as Cunliffe wrote, “The world of litigation is full of sailors who hit rocks ‘not on the chart.’ The bricks were there all right, but the casualty didn’t zoom in tightly enough for the layering arrangements to reveal them.” Again, he makes a valid point.
We expect all sailors have used electronic charts. How many have experienced the lack of nuance available on the screen? To fully see everything within the range that the boat may veer to port or starboard, depending on the variations in wind and currents, one needs to “zoom” out, thereby losing detail, and to see the detail, one needs to “zoom” in, thereby losing the bigger picture. A paper chart will show everything, all at the same time.
UKHO has stated that as it phases out the paper charts it will “focus on providing digital alternatives to meet demand…” giving users “ample time and support as they switch to those digital alternatives.”
The Royal Yachting Association, renowned for training sailors the world over, says in Sailing Today that while it is hopeful the new digital charts will improve navigation for recreational boaters and looks forward to working with and supporting the UKHO in their plan, it will continue to teach using both digital and traditional navigation techniques. Eventually, however, it expects the emphasis will shift toward more electronic-based techniques.
In 2019, NOAA announced it would phase out nautical paper charts from 2021, with the process expected to be complete by January 2025.
How will this affect your navigation techniques?
If they can make digital touch screens that can handle dividers, etc., screens 2’x3′ that don’t rely on electricity and function with liquids spilled on them, getting banged, and even in a life raft, then I’m all for it.
Of course, by “they,” I refer to the UK Hydo Office. I wonder if their decision was driven by market considerations not of the type embraced by Raytheon and other huge corporations serving the military. Perhaps they should get into the business of printing paper charts. Then they will see whether or not mariners are ready to abandon them. As a cadet on the bridge, I was required to use paper and a sextant in addition to electronic nav aids. I can’t imagine a responsible maritime passenger or shipping company, or many smaller companies, foregoing paper. That’s crazy to me.
Paper or digital charts aside, How to Read a Nautical Chart by Nigel Calder is a worthwhile read on the subject.
I can’t imagine not using paper charts along with a chart plotter and radar. You can add notes to a paper chart, whether it be something you’ve learned from other mariners or your personal observations.
Chart plotters are great, but what will mariners do if and when they lose power? I believe in redundancy. Paper is redundant to the chart plotter and paper is always available. Power, not necessarily.
I’m a “belt and suspenders” kind of sailor. As others have pointed out, there’s no substitute for paper charts when the batteries die, the sun is obscured and the diesel isn’t turning over. Being prepared saves lives. The people who died on the Titanic weren’t killed in the crash with the iceberg – there weren’t enough life boats and blankets.