NOAA Says No More Paper Maps Of U.S. Waterways

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will no longer print traditional lithographic charts of U.S. waters after next April. The agency will still map waterways for rocks, shipwrecks and dangers, but mariners will have to download the latest information onto their electronic navigational systems or use private on-demand printing and PDFs.

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It's the end of an era for seafaring types. After next April, the federal government will no longer print the large lithographic nautical charts that mariners have been using for more than 150 years. Technological advancements are making them obsolete as up-to-date charts are now available electronically.

Still, NPR's David Schaper reports that many are sad to see them go.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: It was Thomas Jefferson's idea to first chart U.S. coastal waters in 1807. The government started printing lithographic nautical charts in 1862.

Captain Shep Smith, chief of the Marine Chart Division for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says the lithographs are big, typically about three feet by four feet. He calls them the road map of the ocean.

CAPTAIN SHEP SMITH: The traditional lithographically printed charts - that's a type of printing technology - are printed on fairly heavy paper. They're meant to be used for years and are used traditionally as a sort of worksheet.

SCHAPER: Captain Smith says mariners mark on the charts where they are, where they've been and where they're going.

SMITH: The land is sort of a yellow and then the water is blue and white. There are numbers on there that indicate the depth of the water and, you know, various other information on there as well.

JAY MOONEYHAM: They can show you all the navigational hazards...

SCHAPER: Jay Mooneyham unfolds one of these large maps on the 87-foot yacht he captains out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

MOONEYHAM: The actual paper charts, I mean, if it's there, it's for you. It's a solid piece that you can actual work off of and...

SCHAPER: But just as many drivers no longer unfold highway maps or flip through an atlas on the road, fewer captains, including Mooneyham, rely solely on printed charts.

MOONEYHAM: So we just had this system installed here. It's a Garmin system and it runs on electronic charts. So you can get charts for anywhere you want in the world. You can actually download them off the Internet and put them on the system if you want.

SCHAPER: And Mooneyham says he keeps the printed charts as an old-fashioned back-up.

MOONEYHAM: If you lose power and you have to dead reckon, plot your course and that sort of stuff, it's easier to do on a paper chart obviously than on a blank screen, you know?

SCHAPER: Paper charts will still be required, actually, in case a boat or ship loses power. Full-scale PDF's of NOAA's maps will still be available online and charts can be purchased from certified private printers.

The end of the big lithographic charts is simply a sign of the times, says NOAA's Captain Smith. But he'll personally miss them.

SMITH: The lithographic charts are themselves beautiful.

SCHAPER: Smith grew up along the coast of Maine, he says, with the nautical charts hanging on his bedroom walls.

SMITH: There was a great deal of artistry that was on there, including sort of profiles and drawings of land masses, and how a port might look from the sea.

SCHAPER: Smith says the last printing ever will be in April. And you'll be able to find the big charts in nautical shops and stores until they're gone.

David Schaper, NPR News.

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