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NOAA’s nautical charts about to go paperless

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The federal government is going into uncharted waters, deep-sixing the giant paper nautical charts that it has been printing for mariners for more than 150 years.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced on Tuesday that to save money, the government will stop turning out the traditional brownish, heavy paper charts after mid-April.

The agency will still chart the water for rocks, shipwrecks and other hazards, but sailors, boaters and fishermen will have to use private on-demand printing, PDFs or electronic maps to see the information, said Capt. Shep Smith, head of NOAA’s marine chart division.

“Think of them as the roadmap of the ocean,” said Smith, who grew up with charts of Penobscot Bay on his bedroom walls in Maine. “The navigational charts tell you what’s under the water, which is critical for navigation.”

Nowadays, most people instead use the on-demand maps printed by private shops, which are more up-to-date and accurate, Smith said.

Still, NOAA sells about 60,000 of the old 4-by-3-foot lithographic maps each year for about $20 apiece, the same amount it costs to print them.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which took over federal chart-making in 1999, wants to save some money and informed NOAA earlier this month that it is going to stop the presses, according to the ocean agency. FAA representatives did not return calls and emails for comment.

It costs NOAA about $100 million a year to survey and chart the nation’s waters. The agency will still spend the same money, but provide the information in the less traditional way.

Sea dogs say they will miss the charts, which also get used as decorations.

“It’s the nautical history, you know, pirates and ships,” said Newburyport, Mass., harbormaster Paul Hogg, who has a chart on his office wall.


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