An obscure press release from NOAA on February 26, 2021, made an announcement about the availability of a chart in its catalog. Though the chart in question might never be used by ocean sailors, this release from NOAA was a big deal both for the history of US nautical charts and for their future.
The announcement stated that as of August 2021, chart no. 18665 — the NOAA chart for land-locked Lake Tahoe, Calif. — would no longer be available in paper form from NOAA chart dealers. This first phase-out of a paper chart is part of a program that was initially floated by NOAA for public comment in 2017 and then made official in 2019. The “Sunset Plan for Nautical Charts” calls for the complete phase-out of paper charts by 2025 (actually, paper versions of charts will still be available after a fashion; more on that below). The agency’s flagship electronic chart product, the NOAA Electronic Navigational Chart (ENC), will become the mainstay of all charting efforts.
That NOAA will no longer produce supplies of paper charts for distribution to chandleries and marine stores is a major historical break from more than 200 years of nautical charts produced by various permutations of U.S. government agencies, from when President Thomas Jefferson signed the first coast survey act in 1807, to charting efforts led by the USN, to the establishment of the civilian U.S. Coast Survey office in 1832 (later renamed the Coast & Geodetic Survey in 1878), to the establishment of NOAA in 1970 and the inclusion of the C&GS into that new agency.
While the satellite photograph is now our dominant view of the world, a mariner’s eye used to be tied to sea level. As a result, the topography of a stretch of coast was sometimes used as a tool for, for example, entering a harbor, and nautical charts might have a drawing or two of a harbor entrance as seen from sea.
The Coast and Geodetic Survey was responsible for printing paper charts, and at one time many government employees worked at printing plants performing the tasks of making printing plates, running the presses, handling the printed inventory, shipping them to dealers, etc. This long tradition of printing a deep catalog of paper charts is now, however, drawing to a close.
From the NOAA press release: “As part of the sunset plan, released in 2019, mariners will be officially notified of this chart’s [No. 18665] cancellation in the U.S. Coast Guard Local Notice to Mariners. A note in the lower left corner of the chart will state that it is the last paper edition and will be canceled six months later on August 26.
“NOAA will continue to announce the cancellation of additional paper charts as the sunset plan progresses, initially based on volume of sales or downloads and in regions with improved NOAA electronic navigational chart coverage. Cancellation of all traditional paper and associated raster chart products will be completed by January 2025.”
Given that NOAA’s charts will only be ENCs, it sounds like paper charts will be an impossibility. What is an ENC, however, other than a data file of coastlines and depths and hazards and aids to navigation? And data can be compiled into a movable form, such as a PDF. And if you’ve got a PDF, you can print it — either on a large-format printer or on the inkjet printer sitting on your desk. Because of this capability, NOAA has said that the paper chart won’t go away completely. If you want one, you can print it yourself. NOAA is providing this capability to boat owners via its Custom Chart service (devgis.charttools.noaa.gov/pod/).
NOAA describes the Custom Chart service like this: “The online NOAA Custom Chart prototype application enables users to create their own charts from the latest NOAA ENC data. Users may define the scale and paper size of custom-made nautical charts centered on a position of their choosing. Users may then download, view, and print the output.”
If you’d rather not use the Custom Chart approach, which requires you print the charts yourself, it’s still possible to order full-size paper charts from NOAA-certified providers. These providers will print your chart on demand (POD) and ship it to you. One of the providers with the widest array of paper chart products is OceanGrafix (oceangrafix.com). These POD paper charts typically cost $27 each.
So while NOAA is getting out of the paper and ink business, the agency still provides avenues for those mariners who wish to have paper charts on board their boats.