Far Out

Far Out
Far Out
Today's electronic charts take navigation way beyond the realm of mere cartography.

By Capt. Bill Pike — March 2001

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Hang onto your captain's cap. The world according to electronic cartography is getting way wilder than most people can imagine, and it promises to get even wilder still. Not that nautical charts and the various electronic presentations thereof have changed that much in the last year or so, although vector-based electronic cartography seems to be growing steadily in relation to raster-type charts, which in some ways are  less versatile. But  the variety of add-on features packaged with either vector or raster cartography is both stunning and indicative of future developments likely to bring not only sweeping changes, but significant improvements to the realm of cartography and navigation at large.

The handwriting on the wall is plain. According to John Mann, one of the owners of Bluewater Books & Charts of Fort Lauderdale, an old, internationally known purveyor of paper charts, sales of electronic cartography and the software to display it are snowballing. In fact, although Bluewater's business in paper charts, chart kits, and cruising guides remains brisk, Mann says that presently about half of the store's total chart sales revenue comes from electronic cartography.

Even paper charts may benefit from the electronic revolution. The National Imagery and Mapping Agency as well as NOAA and other official vendors of paper charts are experimenting with a digitally inspired, Print On Demand (POD) system that uses NOAA's raster cartography to make the paper charts for sale in chandleries more up-to-date and readable. Speed is the critical factor. For many years now the lag time between the printing of paper charts and the actual purchase of such charts was so extensive that it literally guaranteed inaccuracy. More to the point, because of production and distribution delays, most paper charts when purchased from marine stores even today lack a couple years' worth of corrections having to do with shoal development, harbor dredging, light changes, and buoys moved off-station. In other words, to render such charts really accurate and up-to-date may well involve a good bit of time working with sharp pencils and stacks of Coast Guard Notice To Mariners bulletins.

POD will change all this, however, via a setup whereby a customer orders a chart from a dealer who has it digitally updated to the time of sale by OceanGrafix of St. Paul, Minnesota, which then ships them to the customer overnight, complete with custom colors, a waterproof plastic lamination if desired, and loads of addenda and extra information, much of it taken from electronic cartography. Though the process is still in the testing stage, OceanGrafix says POD will likely be fully operational late this fall.

While electronic cartography's contributions to modern, paper-based technology are easing quietly into the world of the navigator, peripheral developments relating to the cartography itself are hitting the pages of magazines and the shelves of marine stores with in-your-face exuberance. Consider the overlaying of weather data, for example. Among lots of other notable features, Nobeltec's new, sixth-generation Visual Navigation Suite 6.0, a software package compatible with both raster-type Maptech and SoftChart cartography and its own Passport vector cartography, offers free daily downloadable files that overlay wind, barometric pressure, frontal systems, and other data, as well as three-day weather forecasts. In addition, 10-day forecasts are available for a small extra subscription charge. Similarly, using Maptech (raster) and C-Map NT (vector) cartography, as well as Maptech Photo Region Raster Charts, Raytheon's RayTech Navigator Version 2.01 software offers weather overlays with two- to three-day forecasts updatable from a dedicated Web site. Sea temperature, wind direction, and other data are available, as is an add-on weather routing module. And finally, Maptech, the official distributor of raster-type NOAA charts, also has an eye on the weather. The company predicts that with help from satellite-forecasting mavens Orbimage and Echo Flight, it will offer its own downloadable weather service complete with wave heights, wind speed and direction, sea-surface temperature, and even real-time weather maps with graphical overlays.

Next page
> Far Out continued > Page 1, 2

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

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