Boaters set course for store with charts



Fawcett Boat Supplies in Annapolis has a new -- well, newish -- toy.

It is about 4 feet tall, grayish and tucked away in a corner in the back of the store.

It is a chart printer.

Even in a computer- and technology-saturated era, there is something surprising about seeing a nautical chart -- a map showing things such as channel depths, buoys and lighthouses -- created before your eyes.

"Once that thing starts going, it's like flies to a light; people just come over and watch it," said Stephen B. Ripley, who has owned Fawcett with his brother Tom for a year.

The Ripleys acquired the machine in October, just before the Annapolis boat shows.

The contraption's official name is Charts on Demand.

Fawcett is one of a handful of stores in the country that have the ability to print out charts from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration databases.

Maryland Nautical, a marine supply store in Baltimore, is the only other vendor in this area with the same capability, according to Ocean Grafix, the company that owns the chart-making machines.

This is how it works: The owners of Fawcett Boat Supplies lease the printer and a computer from Ocean Grafix of St. Paul, Minn.

That company developed and owns software that detects changes in the NOAA cartography databases and beams that information to servers at the stores.

The charts are updated daily as the Coast Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies move buoys, dredge channels or change lighthouse signals.

"It is constantly in flux," Ripley said.

David C. DeGree, president of Ocean Grafix, said he unveiled his first Charts on Demand machine in 2003 after working for three years with NOAA to develop the technology.

"It took us a couple of years to figure out how to get the quality," DeGree said. "You can spill coffee on it. I don't know that you can beat the hell out of it. It will take what I would consider normal abuse."

An estimated 20 machines are in major U.S. port cities.

Although many serious boaters have computerized charts, DeGree said most safety-conscious people have a set of backup paper charts in case the electronics on a boat fail.

The charts are printed on heavy-duty paper, and the ink doesn't bleed even if water is poured on it or fingers rub it.

For retailers such as Fawcett, the product solves an inventory problem.

In the past, Ripley said, the store would order a batch of charts and they would sit on a shelf. Every six months, new charts would be issued by NOAA, and the old ones would be out of date.

"They end up becoming liners for shelves," Ripley said. Up to 15 percent of the charts expired before being sold, he said.

Ripley said he often did not stock charts for exotic places such as the San Juan Islands. For those planning a long trip, Ripley said, that meant "it was a roll of the dice whether we were going to have the charts."

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