Your Nautical Chart Prices Just Doubled

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 05:25PM - Comments: (1)

May 28, 2010

The price for U.S. nautical charts of the world effectively doubled on May 1, when the Federal Aviation Authority stopped distribution.

Here’s what I know so far, paraphrasing an e-mail I got yesterday from longtime PS reader and marine safety advocate Henry Marx at Landfall Navigation:

A year ago, Federal Aviation Distribution, which prints and distributes nautical charts and maintains the chart agent network, announced that effective Oct. 1, 2009, all chart agents with less than $5,000 annual chart sales would be terminated. They were.

This effectively dropped the number of places you can buy a NOAA chart from about 1,200 to around 100. (Background: As part of an effort to reduce chart printing/distribution costs, FAA took over these duties from NOAA several ago.)

The FAA announced that effective April 30, 2010, the NGA charts of the world (National Geospatial-intelligence Agency charts, formerly known as NIMA, DMA, and Navy Hydrographic Office charts) would not be available to the public. This means that there are no longer any U. S. Government charts of Bermuda, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, etc., being produced for public sale. (The U.S. military will continue to get new NGA world charts, but not civilians.) Although some chart agents have stocked up on popular NGA charts (the Pacific Milk Run, for example), sailors will eventually have to turn to a British Admiralty Chart Agent for international charts. BA charts are beautiful and have long been the standard for commercial ships, but they also sell for between $40-$45 each, versus about half that price for the NGA charts.

“The entire government chart distribution system is in chaos at the moment, and the mariner, commercial and recreational will suffer,” says Marx. “While it is true that most boats have electronic navigation systems, the prudent mariner also carries some paper chart backup. While chart kits will fill some of this gap, those sailing out of U. S. waters are in for a hit to their pocket book.”

Since neither the Federal Aviation Authority, who is charged with distribution, nor the National Geospatial-intelligence Agency, which creates the charts, have yet offered an explanation for the change, I can only assume that this boils down to cost-cutting. If I was a conspiracy theorist, which I’m not, I’d wonder if the shift might be traced back to a quiet push from a major seller of repackaged electronic charts. (Boeing, parent company to Jeppessen is a big player, but there are others.)

Now, I have no problem with privately made charts. Some of the best cruising charts of the Bahamas, for example, come from private sources. However, when hydrographic data that is collected on the taxpayer’s dime is then released only to private companies so they can sell it back to the taxpayer at a profit, I get a little miffed.

Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum tried to do the same with weather data back in 2005, when he introduced a bill to restrict NOAA’s weather reporting, a move that would clearly favor Accuweather, the global weather giant that is based in Santorum’s home state.

What does this mean for boaters? It could be that the NGA is merely looking for a new distributor, but according to those in the business, the NGA, whose primary mission is to serve the military, has never been too excited about pleasing Joe Boater. And the FAA, as you can imagine, isn’t ecstatic about serving us either. So, if you’re bound across the Pacific and want to save a couple grand on charts, you might want to buy NGA charts now, while you still can.

Stay tuned.

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