NOAA tosses sailors in digital seas, stops printing nautical charts

Patrick Stewart as Captain Ahab. (Photographer: Oliver Upton/USA Network) Patrick Stewart as Captain Ahab. (Oliver Upton/USA Network)

They were good enough for the likes of Captain Ahab of “Moby Dick” or Captain Stubing (from that other classic, “The Love Boat”), but old-timey nautical charts are on the way out.

At least the ones provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are. NOAA recently marked the end of a century-plus era by announcing that it would no longer offer print versions of the charts it maintains of U.S. coastal waters.

The government has been printing such maps since 1862. But in the digital age (and a time of hyper-scrutinized federal spending), paper charts have apparently gone the way of the steam engine.

Too clunky, too outdated.

Even though NOAA is promising that the charts themselves will still be available in digital formats, the change is likely to provoke some angst, particularly from some old salts.

“Like most other mariners, I grew up on NOAA lithographic charts and have used them for years,” said Rear Adm. Gerd Glang, director of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey, in a notice announcing the digital shift. “We know that changing chart formats and availability will be a difficult change for some mariners who love their traditional paper charts.”

Nostalgia aside,  it seems it’s time for the old ways to walk the plank.

Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.

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Al Kamen · November 6, 2013