NOAA’s paper nautical charts are here to stay

New certified printing agents bring buying options

It won’t be long before mariners and the boating public will have a wider choice of options and special services when they purchase NOAA paper nautical charts, thanks to NOAA’s expanded “print-on-demand” chart production and distribution system, Coast Survey officials announced on April 4. Coast Survey recently certified new print-on-demand chart printing agents, and gave them the flexibility to offer different color palettes, various papers, a cleaner margin, and a range of services.

Rear Admiral Gerd Glang and Capt. Shep Smith inspect sample charts submitted by new print agents.
Rear Admiral Gerd Glang and Capt. Shep Smith inspect sample charts submitted by new print agents.

NOAA has now authorized seven companies to sell NOAA’s paper nautical charts that are printed when the customer orders them — or “on demand.” The information on the charts is still maintained by NOAA, and the charts are corrected with Notices to Mariners up to the week of purchase.

“Last October, we announced that NOAA would stop using the government printing and distribution system we originally adopted in 1861,” explained Rear Admiral Gerd Glang, director of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey. “We asked private companies to help us transition from the government-run system to a robust and competitive market for paper nautical charts, and we are pleased with the results.”

Five companies have now joined the original “print-on-demand” distributor OceanGrafix and the more recently certified East View Geospatial. The newly certified companies are Frugal Navigator, Marine Press, Paradise Cay Publications, The Map Shop, and Williams & Heintz Map Corporation.

Glang is confident that the expansion of the print-on-demand program will lead to new options for all who purchase U.S. nautical charts. As a premium service, for example, print agents are authorized to customize charts with user-specified overlays.

“With more chart printing agents, we hope to encourage competition and ensure fully up-to-date charts are widely available. Buyers can shop around and find different types of paper, or choose between traditional or new color palettes. Our printing agents can offer delivery or in-shop service, and customers can have their navigation track lines or other information printed as overlays on their chart,” Glang pointed out.

Rear Admiral Glang certified one of the new printing agents for NOAA's paper nautical charts.
Rear Admiral Glang certifies one of the new printing agents for NOAA’s paper nautical charts.

“All charts sold by NOAA-certified printing partners are NOAA charts and fully meet navigational requirements.”

For the last 150 years, the federal government produced nautical charts using lithographic printing presses. Although chart-making techniques advanced from the 19th century’s delicate hand-applied etchings on copper plates to a process that is now completely computer-based, the system remained based on printing large volumes of charts, then selling them from stock for years. Charts for sale were gradually more and more outdated until a new edition was printed. The print on demand system allows the changes made by Coast Survey cartographers to reach mariners much faster.

Coast Survey continues to examine applications from additional companies wishing to become certified as NOAA chart printing agents. The examination process includes testing of applicants’ sample charts, to make sure they stand up to normal onboard usage conditions.

The paper charts sold by the NOAA-certified printing agents meet carriage requirements for ships covered by Safety of Life at Sea regulations, specified in Title 33 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

UPDATE (4/18/2014):

Coast Survey added three more printing companies to its roster of certified agents for paper charts, bringing the total to ten companies authorized to sell NOAA nautical charts that are printed when the customer orders them ‒ or “on demand.” Companies with histories going back decades, and even centuries, support a firm foundation for the continuing production and delivery of U.S. paper nautical charts. Iver C. Weilbach & Co. A/S, which became a certified printing agent this week, is one of oldest private owned companies in the maritime industry ‒ established in 1755 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Granville Printing has provided services since 1988, and East End Blueprint has also been in business for over 25 years.

NOAA’s paper nautical charts get a needed update – literally

Paper nautical charts hold a special spot in a sailor’s heart – and in the chart table. The October announcement that the federal government will stop bulk lithographic printing of nautical charts brought some understandable angst to boaters – but fear not! NOAA may be changing the chart production process but we will NOT stop the production of paper charts. We are working with private companies to make them better: printed in brighter colors and available for fast delivery to your door. Most importantly, they are up-to-date to the moment you order it. These improved paper charts are NOAA-certified print-on-demand (POD) nautical charts, created by NOAA Coast Survey cartographers.

While the lithographic paper charts will go away in 2014, anyone can order almost* any printed NOAA chart any time, from the comfort of your home, office, or boat. Just bookmark to find the NOAA-certified chart seller who will print your chart “on demand” and ship it to you. 

The great lithographic chart tradition answered a country’s need

For more than 150 years, the traditional paper chart that we all know and love has been printed in bulk on government printing presses, using the lithographic process. Lithographs were the latest and greatest technological achievement in the early 1850s, when Coast Survey superintendent Alexander Bache ordered Coast Survey personnel to explore the potential applications of lithography for printing maps cheaply and easily. Since the charts could be printed on cheaper and far thinner paper, lithographic copies could be folded, which was strategically important as the nation prepared for Civil War.

The new lithography helped the federal government speed the production of the thousands of charts needed for the war effort. According to contemporary reports, Coast Survey organized the “lithographing” division in 1861 “in order to aid the regular copper plate printing department in supplying speedily charts for the great demand made upon the office by the existing exigencies of the naval service, and also to afford the means of printing (under due supervision) a set of descriptive memoirs and sailing directions for the coast, for the use of the naval and military commands.”

Two lithographic presses were set up in the Coast Survey office and, according to Bache in his annual report, “an aggregate of more than two thousand copies of maps and charts were printed from them” in the first year of operation. The presses were set up, Bache says, “in order to meet the call for charts from the Naval Observatory to supply national vessels.”

The impact that lithographic printing process had on chart production is measurable. In 1844, before lithography, Coast Survey made 169 copies of its nautical charts. By the end of the Civil War in 1865, we were churning out more than 50,000 copies annually, and by 1900 we had amped up to 100,000 copies a year. With 20th century improvements in the lithographic presses and processes, Coast Survey produced over 100 million maps and charts for the Allied Forces in World War II.

The lithographic printing presses in 1908 hadn't yet reached the speed and efficiency that would be needed for time of war.
The lithographic printing presses in 1908 hadn’t yet reached the size, speed and efficiency that would be needed during wartime.
During World War II, Coast Survey's map folding room was a busy place.
During World War II, Coast Survey’s map folding room was a busy place.

Today’s digitally-produced paper chart reduces risk for maritime commerce, fishing, and recreational navigation

Coast Survey cartographers apply tens of thousands of changes to NOAA charts every year. Some changes are minor, but many are critical to safe navigation. While lithography was valuable in its day, it can take years before a new chart edition is printed with those updates. Advances in digital technology can now deliver charts that have been updated within the week.

Much of NOAA’s chart information is now delivered electronically to chart display systems, as either NOAA RNC® or NOAA ENC®, but we can also harness digital images for mariners who prefer to keep a paper chart, for primary use or for backup. This digital process gives boaters ready access to updated NOAA-certified paper charts that are printed on demand.

As of today, NOAA has agreements with two companies –  OceanGrafix and East View Geospatial, with their local partners – to print and deliver paper print-on-demand nautical charts. We are working with a dozen other companies that have expressed an interest in becoming a NOAA-certified POD partner, and we will keep the vendor list updated at

Commercial mariners can be assured that NOAA-certified POD charts meet the requirements for the mandatory carriage of nautical charts.

Whether the paper charts are printed using lithographic printing presses or after transmission of digital images, Coast Survey’s mission is and remains the same: to produce the nautical charts that protect life and property. That is a mission that never needs to be updated.

(*”Chart books” of some areas in the Great Lakes are not yet available as POD charts. Watch for updates.)

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!)