May 2, 2013

Free Charts!

One of the odd things about the digital information age is that some things have gotten much more expensive while others have become free. Both things have happened to nautical charts. A single printed, paper version of an official NOAA nautical chart of Mount Hope Bay, 13226, now costs $27. Those of us of a certain age can remember when they were less than $2 each. However, today's charts are more up to date than in the past because they are Print-on-Demand (POD) and include all Notices to Mariners up to the date of printing. Every nautical chart can be ordered here, in your choice of water-resistant paper, or printed on fully waterproof synthetic material for $37.

Maybe I'm an old fart, but I still like to have copies of these big, beautiful paper charts onboard, especially for areas that I frequent, like Mount Hope Bay and the Taunton River. I like to be able to make notes on the charts using an ordinary pen, and I can fold one up to provide much greater detail over a larger area, and in much greater resolution than you see on any electronic chart plotting device. Even if you love your chart plotter, it is nice to have an instant back up for when the electronics fail.

For those that are anxiously reading this to see where they can get the "free" charts, you only need to go direct to NOAA. Their online website lets you download every chart for free in either raster (RNC) or vector (ENC) formats. RNC electronic charts look just like paper charts, while ENC charts use a different graphic interface that allows you to turn off and on different layers to customize what you are seeing on your screen. To use either type of electronic chart you need a computer and a charting program. I really like the free OpenCPN charting and GPS navigation program. To use all of its functions you need to purchase a small GPS receiver that plugs into your computer like this one you can get for less than $35 on

In case you're wondering, I found that it takes about three hours to download every available free chart from NOAA, depending on the speed of your Internet connection. If you already have a computer, this set up provides almost cost-free charting and GPS navigation that is far superior to even the highest-end systems available just a few years ago. Frankly, I find the OpenCPN software to be much better than many other expensive and more complicated programs.

If you don't want to go through all that fuss, or you just want to look at charts at home, NOAA even has a free online chart viewing website. I love going to the online chart viewer when thinking about a new cruising area, or just to view a chart to help me decide if I want to purchase a printed copy.