But what if the power goes out?

Having had some little (very little) experience with ships, boats and such things, I couldn’t help doing a double-take at the news that paper navigation charts appear to be on the way out.

[The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] is initiating a five-year process to end all traditional paper nautical chart production…

. . .

For nearly 200 years, NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey has produced traditional paper nautical chart products. Originally, this took the singular form of hard copy paper charts, today, there are several raster digital chart formats available to download or print through a NOAA certified agent. Similar to the transition from road atlases to GPS navigation systems that we have witnessed in this digital era, we are also seeing the increased reliance on NOAA electronic navigational charts (ENC) as the primary navigational product and the decreased use of traditional raster chart products. Since 2008, ENC sales have increased by 425%, while sales of paper charts have dropped by half.

The International Maritime Organization now mandates that all large commercial vessels on international voyages use ENCs. In 2016, the U.S. Coast Guard started allowing regulated commercial vessels on domestic voyages to use ENCs in lieu of paper charts. Recreational boaters are also increasingly using electronic chart displays.

. . .

Ultimately, production will be shut down for all raster chart products and services associated with traditional NOAA paper nautical charts…

There’s more at the link.

I can understand the rationale behind this.  Charts are very expensive to produce, requiring extreme accuracy, a high-quality paper, etc.  If the demand for them isn’t there, they’re probably no longer cost-effective to produce.  However . . . what happens when the electronics stop working?  Power failures, shipboard malfunctions, even an electromagnetic pulse due to enemy action, can disable electronics before you can say “Boo!” to a goose.  Without electronic or paper charts, what’s a navigator to do?

I remember using the electronic Decca Navigator System in South Africa.  A World War II technology, it became standardized after the war in many countries as an aid to chart-based navigation.  It was relatively accurate for its day, and a big advance over older technologies.  However, there were far too many ships and navigators who came to rely on it to the exclusion of traditional navigation methods.  Some ships didn’t even bother to have standard maritime charts of the coast.  When the Decca system went down, for whatever reason, some of them had some very hairy experiences trying to navigate their way out of trouble (particularly when ships and small craft around them were doing the same thing, and nobody was paying enough attention to what other vessels were doing.  Maritime near-misses and fender-benders were not uncommon.)

I’m always worried when an electronic or automated system doesn’t have a physical or manual backup.  As all my naval buddies confirm (sometimes profanely), Murphy’s Law is alive and well, particularly at sea!

I worry about this on land, too.  When I came to this country in the late 1990’s, I navigated my way through over 30 states and dozens of cities using paper map books.  It was a little awkward sometimes, having to pull over to check a map, then go a couple of miles, then check the map again;  but they were adequate for their purpose.  I haven’t used a paper map in the car for over a decade, thanks to GPS navigation systems . . . but those, too, can fail.  I still keep a paper map book in my vehicle, just in case that happens.  I wonder how many younger drivers have ever even used one of them?  Could they navigate themselves around the country, or through a strange city, without GPS?



  1. One can still buy paper charts from third parties. Honestly, this seems a better solution than buying paper from NOAA.

    The ones I have of the FL coast are actually perfect bound and on water resistant paper – cost about $60/book but you can have them open on a boat with no huhu.


  2. Once upon a time, I could use the state map that I got from a gas station "free with a fill-up". Once I reached my destination, I could find a phone booth and check the city map in the phone book.

    Once upon a time.

  3. In the last 10 years I've had a few occasions where the paper maps were great while the car GPS was useless:

    We got caught in the 2010 Nashville flooding, and each time our GPS spotted traffic and directed us to an alternate, the road became impassible shortly afterwards there also. With the map, we were able to avoid low-lying areas (and all the other traffic) and make our way out of town.

    In another trip, a railroad had decided to replace all the level-crossings along a suburban 20-mile stretch. Locals knew the unmarked detours, so the traffic-jam avoidance didn't help alert us. The GPS display when zoomed out far enough for a big-picture view had insufficient detail to be useful, and the automatic-routing just wanted to take us to the nearest closed crossing from wherever we were at the moment.

  4. For airline flights, where every ounce of equipment on board means more fuel used for every flight, iPad flight charts make a lot of sense — but only if the iPad has a known good battery and is fully charged each time. In that case it has its own backup battery, and I suspect there is redundancy because each crew member with responsibility for navigation has his or her individual device.


  5. Back in the late 80's, I traveled from California to Connecticut with only highway numbers to guide me. Borrowed a friends map of the country, figured out the best route, wrote all the numbers down.

    Never got lost, never had to backtrack.

  6. And never forget the possibility of an accidental or intentional jammer or decoy placed near one of the main channels into a busy port (sea or air). When efficient and effective battle, efficient loses when effective changes the ground rules.

    Taught our next generation how to read and use maps, because of the GPS and automatic routing screwups above. Also include the effects from snowstorms, blizzards, etc. to make major roads chancy and force you onto secondary roads. This already helped 3-4 times.

  7. While I have a garmin, I like maps because they give me context. The garmin is decent for guiding me upon a determined route but the map helps me determine which route is better. Where I find my garmin excels is finding that motel in the dark after I’ve been on the road all day. Another plus for gps; there are some people who cant read a map but can follow the instructions garmins give. One winter night I got a call from my daughter, she and her grandmother were lost in a snowstorm, the snow was sticking to the signs making them unreadable. Luckily she was able to spot a sign that gave me enough info to help her navigate home. She got a “ tom tom” that year for Christmas.

  8. Wow. Hope the private sector mapping companies stay with the program. This is something that government should ensure before they get out of the business themselves.

    So easy for electronics to fail. My five year old F150 SD card reader failed on Sunday. The card is fine, the reader quit. No nav for the trip back to Houston from New Orleans (mind you it's hard to get lost on interstates).

    Multiple iPads with air-nav maps would all fail at the same time if a big enough CME hits us, that's a common-mode failure, and why paper maps will never be obsolete.

  9. Paper maps are like… having bridge watch standers on the wings of the bridge to spot moving targets and report problems.

    Because electronics fail, especially when the users of electronics don't bother to keep them working. Like some instances a couple years ago involving large USN ships…

    Backups. Paper or waterproof paper, in a waterproof container, for boating is just a good idea.

    Like having a good set of topographical maps (and the basics behind understanding them) for hiking or backwoods travel.

    Yes, the GPS doohicky thingamabob has all the latest and greatest, except when it doesn't, hasn't been upgraded, is out of power, can't receive a signal, you're trying to hide from people…

  10. I agree with Beens that backup paper is like a bridge watch. It seems that I have been reading that a couple of our navel accidents a little while ago were blamed on officers not keeping the bridge watch sharp! My wife was just telling me about a ship wreck on the west coast caused by the Navy addmittedly messing with the GPS. Also one of the main attack secenarios is high altitude nuclear flash to shut down satalites! Enough said.

  11. I love computers and such, but nothing beats using the old Mark 1 brain. This story makes an old, curmudgeonly fellow like myself have a headache.

  12. Wife when she was just the girlfriend would come visit me in the big city I used to live in. She had a GPS system and would inevitably get lost coming down. One time she punched in the wrong street name, another time she missed a turn. Had to get her turned around by phone a couple times. So, yeah, don't have high hopes about things being electronic.

  13. I don't care for GPS. The couple of times I've used it, it tried sending me through open fields in the middle of nowhere instead of keeping me on the highway I was on.

  14. I use Garmin with hardcopy in the glove compartment and the map pockets in the driver's side door. Garmin is great at some things; really poor at others.

    On the water, it depends. During sailing class in Jax, FL, one student asked how to get to the Bahamas. The younger instructor launched into a lecture about charts, tides, prevailing winds… after he wound down, the old salt told the students, "Put the sailboat in the water so's you can see the ocean. Sail South – that's on your compass – and keep the land on your right. Sail to Miami, restock your provisions because you'll need more beer by then, and wait for sunset. Turn your back to the sun and start sailing. The first land you hit, stop and ask directions. It's about a one night sail, and if you want someone to help you just ask around any marina for someone who wants to go and knows the way. You won't have any problems.

    They didn't.

  15. All of my children have been taught to use maps for navigation, both for driving and for hill walking. Maps don't run out of batteries.

  16. I have paper maps and mapbooks of a large part of the area I live in case my electronics go tango uniform. I use Google Maps to not just find a recommended route but alternates, alternate alternates, "get me the hell outta here" routes, and to learn the "lay of the land". I take no trips without knowing how to get there and back, and where my destination is in relation to the rest of the world. I have never and will never use any device that I'm supposed to let tell me where to go turn-by-turn without my having any other information about the route, the destination, and the places along the way.

    In the vein of the post…Peter, I don't recall if I saw anything here about it so I'll ask if you knew that the US Naval Academy stopped teaching celestial navigation for about ten years because it was "too hard" and, anyway wasn't needed because GPS works better. Dwell on that for a moment. The method by which humans have navigated all over the globe for thousands of years is "too hard". Jesus wept.

    I only heard of it when the Navy reinstated teaching it a year or three ago when some bright soul convinced Command that while electronics are really great tools they break on occasion.

  17. The best thing about electronic charts is that they are current. Updating paper charts from the weekly notice to mariners is a burden, and also a source of errors.

    Being digital, one can also have them stored redundantly in several places.

    A casual looking over of coast guard and NTSB reports online shows no merchant ship incident because of loss of access to electronic charts. Older records are replete with navigation and piloting problems when out of date paper charts were used.

    As was mentioned, American Airlines was been using electronic maps exclusively for the last few years. It has worked well.

    I really can't see a downside for the professional mariner.

  18. For a vendor keeping paper stock current is a real pain. Clipping corners for credit on superseded charts is a never ending chore. It hasn't been that long since decorative charts from old copper plate engravings were available. I suppose parallel rules will pass into history along with slide rules and the oxymoronic circular slide rule.

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