The End of Paper Charts...and More

A lot has been going on these past few months, and now it seems we are going to see the sunset of paper charts. At a recent meeting and document published by NOAA's Office of Coast Survey (OCS), the timing is right to make some monumental changes, as the world of marine navigation continues to evolve. The document covers OCS's plan to modernize and transform a charting system that dates back to the early 1800s. With the introduction of electronics and especially GPS, continuing to do it the old way is just not a successful strategy.

According to Rear Admiral Shepard Smith, the paper era is over. (Incidentally, this same man had just taken over as head of OCS in charge of our nation's charts when I asked the office who maintained the ICW's Magenta Line. It seemed an obvious question, but apparently they quickly realized that no one had ever asked that question before, in 87 years! In the ensuing confusion between Army Corps of Engineers and OCS and other agencies, no one had any idea, as each agency thought another agency maintained it. Admiral Smith saw this as an opportunity for the "new guy," and assumed complete responsibility for the Magenta Line moving forward. Talk about big government, and those in it smart enough to see such opportunity!)

Electronic Navigational Charts (ENC) have been on the scene for 30 years, and are the official electronic charts used in the Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) adopted by commercial ships beginning in 2012. All SOLAS class ships will be fully operational with ECDIS by mid-2018. ENC charts allow for much better navigation options, overlays, and integration with other equipment. They offer much safer navigation than standalone paper charts can hope to offer. With the conversion in commercial shipping to EDCIS as the primary means of navigation, with automatic updates, paper charts will indeed be obsolete.

Another twist is that OCS is finally going to show depth and other information in the metric system, to come in line with the rest of the world, and the strong recommendation of the International Hydrographic Bureau. This will be a major change in how you view charts. However, we will still be able to convert these depth readings through settings in our chart plotters if we prefer to remain on the Imperial system of feet, gallons, and pounds. But with todays' pace in technology, we all need to be on the same page.

Do you see where this is going? In the coming future, when you order new, print-on-demand paper charts, they will be printed with metric information. You will have to do those conversions in your head.

I am only giving a broad brush of all that being discussed here, but I think the final nail in the coffin of paper charting is understanding this: All electronic charts were originally created from their raster (paper) equivalent. Raster was here first, and it took a long time to convert the drawn cartography into a database of digital data points. Do you remember those days? It was all so confusing.

Moving into the future, however, new ENC charts will be created from new sources of survey, sounding datum, and lots of other information gathered from many sources using far newer technology than the primitive techniques of Lewis and Clark. So ask yourself, what would be the justification to then dumb down all of this accurate and integrated information into a traditional paper chart that we were used to, and which is out of date the moment after it is printed? There is none.

We will hear much more of this in the coming months.