Popular raster charts now offered for free



Boating gear tends to cost several times more than you think it should. A simple clam cleat can run about $50. Replacing the winch handle that went overboard can cost about $70.

However, as boaters tidy up their vessels this winter, they will be pleased to know that one perennial expense is now free.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is providing a popular type of electronic chart, called a raster chart, for no charge on its Web site. Several private companies are also providing the same charts on Web sites, as well.

"The advantage for the public is more widespread use," said Dave Enabnit, technical director for the Office of Coast Survey for NOAA.

Previously, boaters had to buy the charts from a company called MapTech with which NOAA contracted.

Under the terms of the contract, NOAA would hand over its oceanographic information, and the company would put the chart data into a format that could be uploaded to standard navigational software. MapTech would then sell the charts and navigational software to boaters.

But when the contract expired this year, NOAA decided that the charts should be provided for free, as a public service.

Now NOAA pays MapTech to make the charts, but the finished product is transferred back to NOAA for free distribution. MapTech also launched its own Web site with downloadable charts.

"In the past, boaters have paid for the charts directly. Today what happens is all taxpayers pay for the charts and boaters get them for free," said Mark A. Jadkowski, an executive with MapTech.

NOAA is hoping that the free charts will mean that more boaters will have up-to-date map information, Enabnit said. The charts have information about water depths, buoys, lighthouses and shipping channels.

Boaters are supposed to update their charts at the beginning of each season, but often they don't bother to do that, Jadkowski said.

"I think the impact is that more people will use up-to-date charts, and the overall impact will be [an] increase [in] public safety," Jadkowski said.

About 1 million free charts have been downloaded from MapTech's site since it was launched in the beginning of last month, Jadkowski said. However, Jadkowski stressed that that number likely reflects a small number of people downloading an entire set of 1,000 charts.

NOAA, which started providing the free charts on its Web site three weeks ago, did not have information about how many charts had been downloaded.

NOAA updates its charts weekly - usually with minor changes such as a new buoy or channel marker. But, occasionally NOAA will commission a new survey of a waterway that can give boaters significant new information.

NOAA already makes a different, more sophisticated type of chart, called an electronic navigation chart, also available for free.

However, the raster charts are easier to use and are more popular with boaters.

"We'll put both types out there," Enabnit said. "If one becomes the dominate product, we'll take action."


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