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.

Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on marine products for serious sailors for more than 45 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising or any form of compensation from manufacturers whose products we test. Testing is carried out by a team of experts from a wide range of fields including marine electronics, marine safety, marine surveying, sailboat rigging, sailmaking, engineering, ocean sailing, sailboat racing, and sailboat construction and design. This diversity of expertise allows us to carry out in-depth, objective evaluation of virtually every product available to serious sailors. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser with more than three decades of experience as a marine writer, photographer, boat captain, and product tester. 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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