Recently, there have been a flurry of very similar headlines to this one in the news, and, man, did the first few get my attention. NOAA is no longer going to print charts?? Surely, there are still a few other dinosaurs like me around who feel it is quite important to have paper charts aboard? What's the world coming to?
I quickly recovered from my initial shock and indignant outrage when I read the actual NOAA press release, however. The situation is not nearly as dire as I was led to believe. In fact, I discovered a number of new (at least to me) benefits NOAA is now offering that are quite positive.
After April 2014, NOAA will no longer print paper charts – this is true. For the past 150+ years, the U.S. Government has used a lithographic printing method to print charts, which were then sold to retailers. Lithographic printing is a cost effective method of printing if a lot of copies are to be made. NOAA would print thousands of each chart when the stock got low, and these charts would then sit on a shelf, for years in many cases, until the stock ran low again. As updates and corrections to any of the charts were made, all the charts in stock would have to be periodically corrected by hand. I would guess a significant amount of labor would be involved in keeping all those stocked paper charts up to date. After April 2014, the lithographic printing of charts by NOAA will cease.
This does not mean, however, that paper charts will no longer be available. Rather than printing, stocking, and manually correcting thousands of charts, NOAA will continue updating all their charts, and will provide them to third party retailers who will print them on demand. This means that you can order the latest version of any chart, in full or reduced size, and in color or black and white format, and have it shipped to you anywhere in the world from any of literally dozens of companies that provide this service. Our favorite has been Bellingham Charts. Their 2/3 size charts are relatively inexpensive, especially if you buy a chart set, the quality is good and their service is good.
My next thought was that this probably means that I won't be able to go to my local chandlery and spend a pleasant hour or so looking through the stacks of charts to find the ones I want. But after grumbling about this for a day or two, it occurred to me that most local stores would continue to order and stock the same charts they do now. The only difference would be that they would be ordering from a third party printer rather than the government printing office. It's even possible that the cost of the charts might go down since there is considerable competition (or more likely, the store's profit margin might go up?).
NOAA also provides the U.S. Charts directly to the public in several formats. The first format is a digital raster format. This format is used with several of the navigation programs and apps. I have used two of the free ones on my PC... OpenCPN and SeaClear . Both are reasonable, if basic, navigation tools, and both allow you to use the free raster charts provided by NOAA.
The second format is in pdf form. You can view, pan and zoom the pdf file on your computer or tablet, but unless you have a printer capable of printing large sheets of paper, the printed version will be too small to be usable.
The third format is my favorite. You can now print any chart in a booklet format. NOAA has divided each of their charts into 8.5”x11” sections, and arranged them so that they can be easily printed. If your printer supports printing on both sides of a sheet, it is quite quick and easy to make a chart booklet for any NOAA chart. Their website indicates that this option has just transitioned from an experimental program into official production. Kudos to NOAA - I think this is a great option.
Bear in mind that all this only pertains to U.S. Coastal charts. The U.S. International charts are not provided by NOAA, but rather the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), and are only available to the public through third parties.
So now I am just a little depressed because I don't – at the moment – have anything to complain about. But the day is still early and I just discovered Amazon is having a sale on Leatherman Hand Tools which should cheer me up until I can find something else to grouse about.