USCG Now Allows Digital Instead of Print Charts

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Heralding in a new era for electronic navigation, the U.S. Coast Guard recently published guidance that allows mariners to satisfy chart-carriage requirements using electronic charts and electronic publications instead of paper ones.

The Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular, NVIC 01-16, establishes what qualifies as the equivalent of print charts and publications. The circular applies specifically to vessels required to carry U.S. charts and related navigation books-generally commercial ships-although other mariners can voluntarily comply.

By combining the suite of electronic charts from the U.S. hydrographic authorities with an Electronic Charting System (ECS) that meets the standards published this past summer by the Radio Technical Commission for Maritime Services (RTCM), mariners will have what the Coast Guard believes to be a viable substitute for the traditional, official paper charts.

With real-time voyage planning and monitoring information at their fingertips, mariners will no longer have the burden of maintaining a full portfolio of paper charts, said Capt. Scott J. Smith, the chief of the U.S. Coast Guards Office of Navigation Systems.

Currently, recreational boaters are not required to carry any charts on board, and the circular does not change that. Nor do the new rules suggest that a recreational boater with a state-of-the-art chartplotter and even the most updated suite of digital charts would be in voluntary compliance with the guidelines. According to Bob Markle of the RTCM, no major marine electronics manufacturer (Raymarine, Simrad, Garmin, etc.), or maker of digital charts for use on digital tablets (Navionics, Jeppesen, Rose Point, etc.) is ready to claim compliance among its suite of products aimed at recreational boaters. The digital charts and expensive chart systems used by commercial ships include several redundancies that make them cost-prohibitive to the average recreational boater. Most sailors will also find the power requirements for a compliant system to be onerous.

PS regards the new guidelines with some skepticism. They will certainly save the government and commercial shipping interests time and money, but we hope that recreational sailors do not interpret the announcement as a ringing endorsement for an all-digital, paperless cruiser. In our view, even when Coast Guard-compliant systems come within reach of the average sailor, there will always be a need for printed charts that can be used for planning and as backup in an emergency.

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.

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