NOAA, MapTech now provide popular raster charts to boaters for free


December 18, 2005|By ANNIE LINSKEY

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'll 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 that NOAA contracted with.

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 free as a public service.

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 hopes 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 [increased] public safety," Jadkowski said.

About 1 million charts have been downloaded from MapTech's free site since it was launched in November, Jadkowski said. However, Jadkowski stressed that that number probably 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 last month, 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 available to the public 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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