Free electronic charts from NOAA

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The digitized raster charts can be downloaded, but you’ll need to buy the software to use them

The digitized raster charts can be downloaded, but you’ll need to buy the software to use them

The most recent digital navigational information now can be yours free from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration … if you’ve bought the software to handle it.

Until now NOAA’s raster charts — digitized charts scanned from its paper versions — were available only for a fee through Maptech, with which the agency had an exclusive contract. “Maptech was offering it to the end-user for a price,” says Alexandra Heliotis, deputy chief of NOAA’s Marine Chart Division. “We wanted to make it available to the recreational mariner. It was decided we’re going to offer it for free, which means that the customer that needs just one or two charts or five charts can get it.”

There is no limit to the number of charts you can download, Heliotis says. But first you must load the software, which she says still is sold by the various companies that have developed it, on your computer-based navigation system.

The deal with Maptech was a first step at a time when the use of raster charts was being perfected, according to Heliotis. Maptech had a “set of providers that developed navigational systems, such as Nobeltec,” she says. “They would distribute them [the charts] to their customers.” Now that the systems have been proved, she says NOAA didn’t feel right having an exclusive agreement through Maptech.

Maptech and the other providers won’t be left in the cold, she says. “The industry had developed to the point where we thought they could do the distribution to those people that needed a more customized distribution,” she says.

Raster charts have an advantage over conventional paper charts in that they can been repeatedly updated, and quickly, according to NOAA. “There are two things we update,” Heliotis explains. On a weekly basis NOAA adds any critical information it has gathered through the Coast Guard’s Notice to Mariners system. The agency also includes new features found in the more than 8,000 pieces of information that NOAA acquires each year, either from boaters or from its surveys.

The free charts can be downloaded at www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov, Heliotis says. At the home page, click on the icon for raster charts and follow the instructions.