USCG Now Allows Digital Instead of Print Charts


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
Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 50 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him at