NOAA nautical charts now available as free PDFs

In case you missed it, yesterday we announced an end to government printing of lithographic nautical charts, effective April 13. Lithographs are part of Coast Survey’s proud heritage, since we started using that printing process for mass-producing charts for the Civil War, and it will be hard to see the era end. (See NOAA announces end of traditional paper chart.) While lithographic printing is scheduled to stop, however, the public will continue to be able to purchase NOAA paper charts as up-to-date print-on-demand products.

As one product ends, another begins. We also announced yesterday that our latest addition to the nautical charting portfolio is the new Portable Document Format (PDF) nautical chart, which provides up-to-date navigation information in this universally available file type. Initially, the PDF nautical charts will be available for a three-month trial, from October 22, 2013, to January 22, 2014.

For the trial period, Coast Survey is providing about a thousand high-resolution printable nautical charts—almost the entire NOAA suite of charts—as PDF files. The PDF nautical charts, which are almost exact images of the traditional charts currently printed by lithography, are free.

We are trying this as a trial so we will have an opportunity to hear from the public and evaluate usage. Does the boating community find the charts useful? Is there a better way to provide these free products? Should we continue the new service?

Just as with Print-on-Demand (POD) and NOAA raster navigational charts (NOAA RNC®), PDF nautical charts are updated weekly and include all of the latest critical chart corrections. These files can be printed or viewed depending on the customer’s choice.

(NOTE: For mariners using paper charts to meet chart carriage requirements under federal regulations, only printed charts provided by NOAA-certified POD providers will meet U.S. requirements when the traditional lithographic nautical charts are no longer available. POD charts meet stringent print standards and can be recognized by an official certification of authenticity printed on the chart.)

Key features of the PDF nautical chart

  • Updated Weekly. PDF charts are up-to-date with critical corrections from Notice to Mariners.
  • Available Immediately. New PDF chart editions are available two to eight weeks sooner than traditional NOAA paper charts have been.
  • Enhanced Readability. These are printed in brighter colors, so the charts are easier to read. Additionally, the files are high resolution, at 400 dpi.
  • Printable. Most charts can be printed from any plotter capable of plotting 36” width to achieve 1:1 scale.
  • Easy to view. PDF files can be viewed with free PDF readers such as Adobe Reader. If you do not already have this viewer installed on your computer, you may obtain it at no cost from the Adobe Reader webpage. Other free PDF readers can be found by searching the Internet.

It’s only been 24 hours since we released the PDF nautical charts, but so far the reaction is good. “Like very much. Resolution is terrific, even when zoomed to 400%,” says one commenter. “Another good backup, and good for route ‘browsing’ …I would strongly recommend that these be made a permanent chart option. Thanks so much.”

Another commenter tells us, “I want to give a big thumbs UP for the new PDF format for nautical charts (and free download). We downloaded the Puget Sound region this morning and immediately used it to locate a mysterious point that had been entered in a dive fishery log book. Excellent product! I hope they remain available for free download.”

The flexibility seems to be popular with chart users. “I’m commenting on the trial project to make Great Lakes Nautical Charts available as PDF files. It is a great service and should become a permanent part of NOAA’s services. As a kayaker who paddles on the Great Lakes, I appreciate this service very much. For my needs, a full sized chart is usually far more paper than is needed. With the PDF service, I can crop targeted areas and print for use. I will be telling my paddling friends about this trial service.”

Even non-boaters like them. “The pdf chart downloads are for my purposes, just great. I don’t navigate (typically). But I do need to reference shipping lanes, underwater obstructions, berth numbers, port configurations, bridge clearances, basic hydrographic info, etc. in my work. Being able to view them on my computer is extremely helpful.”

There have been some early shortfalls, we recognize. As one commenter pointed out, “I tried to download your new pdf chart for my home port. With no index or linked index, it is pretty unusable for the masses.” True, when we opened the site yesterday, we only had a list of the chart numbers. Until we integrate a new chart viewing service into the PDF nautical chart service, we suggest that people find their chart number by using our Online Chart Viewer.

What do you think about the PDF nautical charts? We’d like to hear from you.

Chart 12283

We reduced the size of the file to save PDF nautical chart 12283 as a jpg. Click and zoom to get a better idea of the resolution. (The online PDFs are even better!)

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