Facility Navigational Documents – End of An Era

All USCG Aux facility owners know that they must submit their vessel for facility inspection by a Vessel Examiner each year, with the results documented on Form ANSC-7003.  This ensures that they have all of the necessary equipment aboard to safely and effectively complete their missions.  Included on the list are the following navigational documents:

  • Navigation Rules
  • Charts of operating area
  • Light List for area (current)
  • Tide Tables (local)

I find the extra information in parentheses above a bit clunky.  The Tide Tables must be the local ones AND must be current (not last year’s) otherwise they are useless.  Also, the Light List requirement notes that they must be current, which is helpful and correct, but the charts have no mention of requiring currency.  Oh well – perhaps someday these minor inconsistencies will get fixed on the form.

What does it mean to be current?  First of all, recall that the Light List and Tide Tables are published annually.  Charts are not published on a regular timeline but have an edition date.  Light Lists and charts are updated through the Local Notice to Mariners on a weekly basis.  For example, Light List updates are on the Navcen website here.

If you don’t keep your navigation information up to date then you have the real risk of making a navigational error due to a buoy that is extinguished or off station or any number of other issues.  So how do you keep current?  This is particularly challenging with charts whose last edition date might be several years old.  Well, changes are coming which will have profound impact on how we manage these documents.

This year, NOAA began the five-year process to discontinue production of all paper charts and raster products.  This is planned to be a five-year timeline with all of these products eliminated by 2025.  Click the image below to learn more.

Many mariners have received this news with dismay due to a valid and prudent reliance on paper chart products. But times are changing, and navigational information is now contained within what are called Electronic Navigational Charts or ENCs.

In addition to ENCs, there are electronic images of the paper charts that are called raster charts or RNCs.  You can think of these as a scanned version of a paper chart.  RNCs will be going away as well.  The big difference between RNCs and ENCs is that the ENC product is “intelligent”, meaning you can click on an item such as a buoy and pull up details regarding its position, light characteristics, etc.  Basically everything on the chart is clickable.

Click here for a comparison between RNC and ENC charts.

On the left is the content of an RNC file which is basically looks like a scanned version of a paper chart.  On the right side is what the same area looks like on an ENC chart.  When you zoom into an ENC chart the text stays the same size.

Another example of RNC vs. ENC information.  The left side looks like a regular paper chart.  Notice on the ENC on the right you can click on an element (the awash rock) and view detailed information.

This upcoming change does not mean that paper charts will be completely gone.  NOAA has developed a Print On Demand (POD) prototype system which allows users to print ENC chart information at the desired scale always using the latest updated chart information.  

Click on the image below to learn more.

As we evolve into this new realm of ENC chart data we will be more reliant on electronic systems and in fact the USCG has approved the carriage of electronic charts in lieu of paper charts.

The caveat here is that the electronic charts must be the official NOAA ENC charts and NOT the cartography provided by Garmin, Lowrance, and other chartplotter manufacturers.  I’m a big fan of an opensource product called OpenCPN which is a free chartplotter application you can run on a laptop, and it’s very easy to download the latest official ENC charts directly from NOAA.  

By the way, commercial vessels use what is called an Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) that complies with International Maritime Organization (IMO) regulations as an alternative to paper nautical charts.  Think of these as fancy chartplotters with more capabilities than your typical recreational unit.  They use the same ENC charts that are downloadable from NOAA for free.

There are definite pros and cons of paperless navigation.

What may go wrong:

  • Too much information on the screen may cause clutter and can be distracting. The navigator may lose critical minutes on non-important items while decisions should be taken.
  • Complacency due to automatic plotting of position. As positions on paper charts were “past positions” the navigator continually checked them again and again. Now the real time position creates a false sense of security and navigation becomes a “video game”.
  • Wrong settings. If wrong settings are used such as safety depth colors, then the information may be misleading.
  • Alarm Fatigue. If alarms start going off too frequently, the navigator could end up in the situation of acknowledging the alarm even without checking what caused it. 

Benefits of electronic charts:

  • Easy correction of charts with essentially a click of a mouse.
  • Navigation in real time increases situational awareness in combination with proper lookout. With an electronic system the position display on the chart is the present position. 
  • All of the systems provide additional information quickly for special functions including man overboard and search and rescue.
  • Availability of all charts of the operating area, including details of areas not normally visited.
  • Access to additional information resources.

The USCG has also approved the carriage of electronic versions of the Navrules, Light List, and other documents if they can be accessed within two minutes.  This shall not rely on download from the internet but rather have a stored local copy on an electronic device of some sort.  But at least it is easier to download the latest version at any time and have it ready for use.

I’ve not yet heard of a case where an Auxiliary facility has completed an Offer for Use inspection with reliance on electronic documents but technically they are allowed by the USCG and should pass muster.  In the near future we will see much more use of electronic information onboard AUX facilities. 

I look forward to the Chief Director and Auxiliary leadership beginning the process of modernization of our requirements.