Bay is estranged place for local chart publisher



July 13, 2000|By Gilbert Lewthwaite

Alton Parker Balder makes his living in Baltimore, publishing nautical charts for owners of small boats. But Chesapeake Bay - on his doorstep and one of the country's most popular boating areas - is not in his catalog.

His reason: Local sailors are too well-served by other charts and guidebooks.

He has a point.

On my chart table is the new edition of "Maryland Cruising Guide," published by Williams & Heintz Map Corp., of Capitol Heights. This compilation of charts issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration includes updated information from the Fifth Coast Guard District's "Local Notices to Mariners."

I also have the 2000 edition of "Guide to Cruising Chesapeake Bay," published by Chesapeake Bay Communications, of Annapolis. It is a glossy, well-thumbed font of information for the bay cruiser, ranging from secluded anchorages and marina facilities to walking tours of ports-of-call.

It's hard to think I need any additional information, apart from the continuous updating by the Coast Guard, but other books and guides can be found in any local marina store.

"There're too many," says Balder, president of Chartcrafters Publishers Inc. "It's the story of the United States - crowded markets."

Balder tried to break into the local market in 1992. He toured the entire bay area, persuading store owners to stock his book, "Marine Atlas of the Chesapeake Bay."

"I hit every corner as a salesman," he recalls. "I loved it. It was a fabulous encounter with the bay, with the people and everything."

The book sold out, but too slowly. The economy was weak, and boating, always recession-sensitive, was suffering.

"You have to get these charts out, because if they go too many summers, they age, and they begin the stink like fish in the market with people saying, `I don't want that. It's outdated. When is the new one coming out?' " he says.

Ironically, a book of Chesapeake charts had gotten him started in the publishing business. Perusing a local bookstore's shelves in 1967, he noticed a collection of bay charts called "Guide for Cruising Maryland Waters." Produced by the Maryland Department of National Resources, it was the predecessor of today's "Maryland Cruising Guide."

"That turned me on," he said of the first regional chart collection he had seen. Most sailors then had to buy individual charts from NOAA, he says.

But the Maryland collection sold for $5, a price he could not compete with. To publish such a book privately, he estimates, would have cost $16.

"I just didn't want to do the Chesapeake because of that kind of competition," he says. "They were giving it away."

Within a few weeks, though, he published the first of what became his library of 12 regional chart books, stretching from Lake Michigan to Texas, and from the Florida Keys to Hawaii.

He learned regional differences in the chart business.

In Texas, which has the enticing combination of lots of money and 500,000 boaters, the market proved surprisingly thin. It was the same in Southern California, another wealthy, boat-rich region he thought would be "a great area."

He remembers thinking: "Why aren't they buying my books? There's money there. There are boats there.

"They were not buying it, because they didn't need it."

Coastlines of both states, from Louisiana to Galveston, Texas, and from San Francisco to Baja California, were long and straight, lessening the need for local charts.

For Maine, he ran into another problem. "There is a Maine mind-set - to hell with everything, except my grandfather's chart," he says. "They are very proud."

But for Long Island Sound, Balder found what he was looking for - chart-conscious, moneyed sailors. His "Mariner's Atlas" of the area is in its 35th year.

"It's a standing-order type of book," he says. "They love it, and they have the money."

For most of the 1980s, Balder got out of the chart publishing business to indulge his other passion - sculpting. He spent several years in Switzerland before returning to Baltimore in the early 1990s.

He reacquired publication rights for the charts of Long Island and expanded the collection to southern New England. He also produced a new "Mariner's Atlas" of southeast Florida, the Keys and the Bahamas.

And he tried, in vain, to break into the local Chesapeake Bay market.

"I did it, and it struggled," he says. "What I feel like is that unless I can come up with some sort of miraculous innovation, it won't work. I would say `absolutely no' to the Chesapeake Bay unless I had a gimmick."

After talking to Balder, I checked the chart table on my 31-foot Westerly sloop, and there, beneath the modern charts and guides, was an old copy of Chesapeake Bay Magazine's "Charts of the Cheseapeake." Listed as editor was: A. P. Balder.

The old book, like the new ones, contains a legal disclaimer, stating that while every effort had been made to ensure accuracy, the charts were not for navigation.

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