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Are your charts current? Probably not

With electronic chart update rates as low as 8 percent, alliance stresses the risk of navigational surprises

It's easy to take the accuracy of nautical charts - paper or electronic - for granted year after year. After all, boaters' home waters are their waters and they're familiar with the shallows, hazards and tricky spots.

This comparison shows chart alterations that can occur between the start and end of a season.

But natural and man-made forces are continually shifting and changing both the surface and seabed of navigable waters. A relocated channel marker may be visible, for example, while a new homeland security zone or the emergence of a shallow sandbar may not be so noticeable.
A pleasure boater's charts typically are three to five years out of date, according to Bob Sweet, national education officer for the U.S. Power Squadrons. The boating safety group is part of a consortium of marine companies and organizations that has formed the Alliance for Safe Navigation to promote the importance of up-to-date charts - and the potential cost-savings to the recreational boater.
"People are not as concerned about safety as they should be," says Ken Cirillo, business development executive for Jeppesen (formerly C-Map/USA), a Boeing subsidiary that produces charts and other navigational products.
Jeppesen and the alliance have published a white paper called "Boat Smart, Update Your Charts," which is available for free download at www.jeppe The white paper hits readers with statistical data of marine carnage culled from government and industry research:
• There are approximately 6,400 recreational boating accidents in the United States each year.
• Collisions account for about 80 percent of all accidents, resulting in nearly 100,000 insurance claims and losses totaling more than $450 million annually.
• In the years 2004 through 2007, more than 2,500 boating accidents resulted from striking a fixed object.
• In those same years, more than 1,400 reported groundings resulted in more than $16 million in damages.
• Groundings are the third-most common reason for assistance calls to TowBoatU.S., behind battery problems and engine failure.
"Relying on charts that are even a few seasons old is an unnecessary gamble that could cost you your boat - or worse," says Cirillo, noting the navigation industry has made a quantum leap in the last decade in improving available chart data.
In the past, boaters updated their paper charts by hand, drawing on the Coast Guard's weekly Local Notice to Mariners containing such information as hazards to navigation, buoy changes, obstructions and dredging projects. Since 2000, boaters have been able to obtain for about $25 official NOAA Print on Demand nautical charts through OceanGrafix (another alliance member), which continually updates changes and corrections.
The emergence of consumer GPS and digital electronic data displays has revolutionized navigation. A survey by OceanGrafix and the Power Squadrons found nearly 70 percent of recreational boaters now use paper charts as a backup to their primary source - electronic navigation systems for chart plotters or PCs, the producers of which also offer regular chart updates for a fee typically in the $100 range. That same survey found that most boaters are getting under way with outdated charts, regardless of whether they use paper or digital.
Electronic charts offer advantages over paper charts, including ease of updating, display versatility and, in some cases, an audio alarm triggered by approaching hot spots. Yet only 8 to 10 percent of customers regularly update their electronic charts purchased from Jeppesen, according to Cirillo. The approximately 5,700 current members of the company's Club Jeppesen Marine automatically receive an annual update chart for $79 a year.
"I think the reason for the low percent is that [updating charts] is not a plug-and-play solution," Cirillo says. "iPhones and smart phones make it easy, but this requires action on the boater's part. Ease of use is key to increasing the percentage of updating."
Cirillo says part of the solution is development of navigation software (with compatible hardware) that enables easy updating.
As further incentive, Cirillo says Jeppesen has been lobbying insurance companies for the last two years to offer discounts to policyholders who show they regularly update their charts. "While insurers like Sea Tow, which regularly works with its pleasure boater subscribers, were quick to embrace the idea, other more mainstream insurers were hesitant," Cirillo says. "They wanted some form of documentation, which was the genesis for this white paper."
The next step for the alliance will be a survey of pleasure boats, possibly later this year, to answer the big question: Why not routinely update? Is it cost, a false sense of security or something else?
Members of the Alliance for Safe Navigation, in addition to Jeppesen and the Power Squadrons, include OceanGrafix, BoatU.S. and Sea Tow, with sponsorship from NOAA.

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue.