Practical Navigators Page 2

Electronics - June 2002 - Practical Navigators continued
Electronics June 2002
By Ben Ellison

Practical Navigators
Part 2: Technological Trickledown

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And leading he is, faster than expected. The concept of a paperless Navy is now an accepted policy, with full implementation planned for 2004. Captains will have some leeway in when they actually dispense with paper backup, but West has strong arguments about why they should. He believes that traditional navigation techniques will only give a false sense of security as users become more accustomed to the power of full electronic charting. Pulling out a roll of unfamiliar paper charts when the going gets rough is just not going to cut it. Of course, "when the going gets rough" is considerably more complex for a fleet navigator in warfare than for any of us recreational boaters.

Behind West's full embrace of digital charting is a determination to make it absolutely reliable and incredibly powerful. The Navy is conducting its own charting software and hardware-development program and making public unclassified portions of it at The basics are familiar to anyone who has used PC charting programs, but beyond the basics--well, wow. Picture hardened, server-size computers connected by fiber optics, dual-frequency military GPS backed up by inertial systems, any and every sort of data overlaid on charts--and that's just the unclassified part.

Meanwhile, NIMA is putting together a seamless worldwide database of vector charts. Steve Hall, associate director of the agency's Maritime Safety Information Division, says, "Admiral West is an out-of-the-box forward thinker. He's leading the Navy into the digital age, and we're going to help him." The database, known as the Digital Nautical Chart (DNC), is rich in layers and detail and has been a massive undertaking, involving the conversion of paper and electronic data from the hydrographic offices of many nations and the development of systems to keep it updated efficiently and quickly.

If you go to and look around the Maritime Safety pages, you'll find information about the DNC and much more. Hall and NIMA also deserve credit for forward thinking; they've actually been providing valuable navigation information online to the public since 1983, first by bulletin board, then by the Web. Today on their site you'll find everything from Great Circle calculators to piracy reports to a downloadable version of Bowditch, all for free. There has even been talk that NIMA might distribute the DNC as open data for the benefit of all mariners, but that's unlikely due to copyright issues.

No matter, all this development will benefit recreational boaters in due time. There is always a technological trickledown; remember where GPS came from in the first place. Some Third World hydrographic offices are now better able to provide vector chart data after working with NIMA. Somewhere being tested in secret is some nifty navigation tool that we will get our mitts on eventually. Perhaps more important is the leadership that men like West and Hall are providing. Like Nathaniel Bowditch, these are true American practical navigators, skilled in the traditions but open to new technologies. There's much to be learned from all these men and much to be proud of.

Next page > Electronics Q&A > Page 1, 2, 3

This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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