For many boaters the writing was already on the wall, but now it’s official. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, office of nautical charts, announced last week it is moving out of the chart printing business. Next April the Maryland government facility that prints them will close.
The NOAA Office of Coastal Survey Marine Chart Division will continue to keep all its waterway information up to date using high-tech measures involving survey work, and charts will be electronically accessible for free in a number of ways.
“Remember those days when everyone had a Rand McNally road map in the car?” asked Capt. Shepard M. Smith of the marine chart division with NOAA. “You bought a new one every few years. Now most people have an electronic GPS device. They are still consuming the same information, but in a different form.”
Gregory Mayhew of West Tisbury, captain of the Menemsha fishing boat Unicorn, once used a divider and a parallel ruler to plot his way with paper charts. He also employed a compass, and then later a GPS system. Today, Mr. Mayhew has both digital and paper charts in his pilothouse. He said he switched principally to a computer-driven navigational system in the 1990s. His paper charts in the pilothouse are old, frayed on the edges and have turned a shade of brown. They’ve been folded so many times that there are permanent fragile creases that run across them. Pencil scratchings mark notable places.
“It is not the end of paper charts,” Mr. Smith added. There are a number of private companies that will continue to make charts, some more user-friendly than the large paper charts created at the government printing office. At local marine stores, consumers can purchase a book of waterproof charts, which are color coded to reflect favorite fishing spots.
Capt. David H. Moore of Falmouth works on the ferry Island Home and has been with the Steamship Authority since 1979. Throughout his career he has watched the digital age take root in the pilothouse. He now has a computer screen that not only shares information about shoals, sandbars and government buoys, but also identifies the presence and names of other ships in the area. This is part of a radio-enhanced system called AIS, which electronically shares information about vessels in real time.
But only a few feet away from this colorful screen is a large table loaded with charts. Captain Moore said paper charts are still required aboard. He said they rarely refer to them; maybe once a month. He said it is nice having the paper charts on hand, should the computer fail.