Monday, May 15, 2017

NOAA has posted a draft plan on the future of charting

NOAA has undertaken a comprehensive plan to evolve their chart products. The following statements are from NOAA announcements recently released:

"The NOAA Office of Coast Survey has released a draft National Charting Plan. The plan describes the current set of NOAA nautical chart products and their distribution, as well as some of the steps Coast Survey is taking to improve NOAA charts, including changes to chart formats, scales, data compilation, and symbology. The purpose of the plan is to solicit feedback from nautical chart users regarding proposed changes to NOAA's paper and electronic chart products. Coast Survey invites written comments on this plan that is available from​staff/​news/​2017/​nationalchartingplan.html."
"NOAA invites public comment on the recently released National Charting Plan. Comments are due by midnight, June 1, 2017. The National Charting Plan is a strategy to improve NOAA nautical chart coverage, products, and distribution. It describes the evolving state of marine navigation and nautical chart production, and outlines actions that will provide the customer with a suite of products that are more useful, up-to-date, and safer to navigate with. It is not a plan for the maintenance of individual charts, but a strategy to improve all charts."
Ships on international voyages must comply with the 1974 International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). In 2012, International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted regulations that will make the use of Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems (ECDIS) mandatory on certain SOLAS class vessels by July 2018. Many already do. That means that all large SOLAS class ships will soon stop using paper charts as their primary means of navigation and start using an ECDIS to display electronic navigational charts.

To create the most accurate and up-to-date Electronic Navigational Charts (ENCs), NOAA is proposing several major changes to how navigational information is generated, stored and reported. Essentially, they are proposing to eliminate raster charts and refine ENCs. Coast Survey currently produces three products that meet the carriage requirements specified by the IMO and the U.S. Coast Guard. These are the nine-volume set of the U.S. Coast Pilot® sailing directions, NOAA ENC® digital charts, and NOAA paper nautical charts (when printed by a NOAA-certified chart agent). 

Stuart Scadron-Wattles posted some insights into the planning process on the Three Sheets Northwest blog. Of particular interest are some of the new tools that are already available such as the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observational Stations (NANOOS) web interface which provides customizable data that allows users to plot a course along the Pacific Northwest coast taking factors such as tides, currents and weather into account at specific points in time. It illustrates a direction that navigation using electronic coastal charting may take in the future.

One of the changes that is definitely going to happen is that future charts maintained by NOAA will show depths in meters rather than feet or fathoms.  Most raster charts show depths in feet or fathoms, whereas the convention adopted for Electronic Nautical Charts or ENCs was depths, depth curves and other features noting depths converted into decimal metric values. Now that ENCs are deemed acceptable for commercial navigation, standardization with international conventions for use in navigation equipment makes much sense.

As the issue identified by recreational boaters that NOAA could most improve is depth information, this may not go down terribly well in the non-commercial sector. NOAA states that there are 15 million recreational boaters in the US. It didn't work when they tried to convert paper charts in the 1990s. But today, mariners will still be able to convert the information to feet and fathoms within their navigation systems so NOAA is confident that it will work this time.

One change we welcome is the re-scheming of ENC cells. When paper charts were converted to ENCs, the resulting areas covered in each cell were irregularly shaped, often at different scales, maintained in individual databases, and adjacent cells sometimes did not match up. ENCs do not need to follow raster charts so NOAA will create a new gridded system with standardized scales and cell sizes. Cell boundaries will follow latitude and longitude lines. Moreover, the data will be held in one seamless database called the Nautical Information System (NIS).  NOAA also proposes that the hydrographic data generated by the US Army Corps of Engineers for ports will be integrated as will the USCG Aids to Navigation and other items listed in the Notice to Mariners.

Apparently, according to the blog posting on Three Sheets Northwest, Jeffrey Siegel, owner of Active Captain, dropped a bombshell at the launch meeting for the plan in mid-April. He suggested that NOAA get out of the recreational cartography business altogether. Interestingly, on May 11, Garmin announced it had acquired Active Captain. Jeff and his wife will become employees of Garmin, a commercial venture in electronic cartography. Curiously, they do not state in their press release what will happen to the crowd-sourced data that the users of Active Captain painstakingly input into the system which Jeff promised would be free to use by the boating public in perpetuity.  NOAA clearly states that nautical chart data will continue to be available free of charge - after all, the taxpayer has already paid for it.

The conclusion of the plan states that this is the end of raster nautical charts and the sunset of paper charts. Only small scale overview charts will continue to be produced. I certainly do not agree with this and have written in the past about the dangers of relying on electronic charts alone.

Anyway, the notice in the Federal Register can be found online and contains links to the full plan as a pdf and to the comment form with instructions. You can submit your comments via a word document, a pdf or a txt file directly to the online Nautical Discrepancy Reporting system, labeling the report under Other Products as "NCP". The final date for submitting comments is June 1, so don't delay. Let them know what you think.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Psychological prep for offshore sailing

My husband and I, like most couples, sail short-handed. Setting off on an ocean crossing or even a briefer offshore voyage takes a good deal of advance preparation, especially the first time. 

There's a progression of experience we've noted. The first voyage is filled with fear, primarily fear of the unknown. You make lists, then lists of lists, then prepare for every eventuality. With each successive voyage, unless they are significantly different, the fear is replaced with other emotions, including excitement, anticipation, anxiety and determination. But a healthy dose of fear and respect for mother nature is always good to have. The one thing one needs to fight wholeheartedly is complacency. Complacency can lead to mistakes, and mistakes can be catastrophic out there.

Monday, May 8, 2017

What about electric laser "flares"?

Handheld flare for night time location signalling. 

We've been very interested in electric flares as an alternative to pyrotechnics since we staged a demonstration of flare use at our yacht club more than a decade ago. That demo showed us how dangerous it can be to have flaming magnesium dripping out of a flare that is held from an inflatable life raft. Pyrotechnic flares were invented in the mid-1800s.* A technological alternative that won't melt your vessel around you seems like a good idea.

Flares have two applications: the first is to attract attention and alert others to an emergency situation, the second is help locate the person or vessel in distress. So two types of flares are needed for day and night: those that shoot high up into the sky and those that are held close by after the alert has been spotted. The convention of Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) has standardized the signalling device recommendations to increase the chances of rescue anywhere in the world.

Thursday, May 4, 2017


Summer is coming to the rest of the world.

For years, I've been feeling dread and doom for humanity. I've often shared with Alex that I feel that the end is coming for the world as we know it. There are too many people and not enough resources. It's a scenario heading for disaster of biblical proportions for the human species. I have read Lovelock and I subscribe to the Gaia Hypothesis that the earth is a single organism in which each species is inextricably linked and controlled to ensure the survival of the whole.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Shipbuilding heritage in Beaulieu

Carpet of bluebells
Visiting our friends, the Meakins, is always an interesting experience. They live in Southampton, UK, a city with a rich maritime heritage. In fact there is so much history everywhere that it becomes a game to discover how it all interlocks.

Row, row, row your boat 
On arrival, we were offered a trip up the Hamble River by row boat. Alex and Philip rowed up river against the wind. The marinas got progressively smaller until they disappeared altogether. Here we entered another world. A protected ancient oak forest carpeted with bluebells.

The River Hamble in Hampshire, England flows for 7.5 miles (12 km)  before entering Southampton Water. It is tidal for about half its length and is navigable in its lower reaches, which have facilitated shipbuilding since medieval times. Leisure craft are still built there today and boating is very popular on the River. The river, its banks, and its shipbuilding yards, have also been used for military purposes, particularly during World War II. Its lower reaches are known throughout the sailing world as 'The Heart of British Yachting'.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Happy Hooking at Beaulieu Boat Jumble

Daria and Alex Blackwell draw a crowd at PBO Ask the Experts Live 2017
Photo credit: Practical Boat Owner.
Alex and I were invited by Practical Boat Owner to present our anchoring seminar at the Beaulieu Boat Jumble near Southampton in England on the 23rd of April. It was the 40th anniversary of the event's launch. Forget the fact that Beaulieu is pronounced bewley, we had always wanted to visit the legendary jumble and this was the 30th anniversary of the event. It was a great opportunity for a triple whammy: promote our book, visit the jumble, and see our good friends Lynda and Philip Meakins.

Some of the attendees from our point of view.
Photo: Alex Blackwell
We thought about coming by car so we could load it up with stuff we wanted to buy, but it proved to be too expensive and time consuming. We flew to Southampton and Philip met us at the airport. After a lovely evening with Philip and Lynda, it was showtime.

We had sent our presentation off to Laura Hodgetts to upload on the shared computer; but just in case, Alex came with thumb drive pre-loaded with our Happy Hooking the Art of Anchoring seminar (based on our book by the same title) as well as our Cruising the Wild Atlantic Way of Ireland talk from the OCC Annual Meeting. His reasoning was that if a speaker cancelled for any reason, we could step in.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Alphabet Soup of Cruising Clubs

View from Knockranny over Croagh Patrick, Clew Bay and Clare Island

For the past two weekends, we have taken part in the annual meetings of first the Irish Cruising Club and then the Ocean Cruising Club. I am a new member of the ICC this year, which has about 650 members in Ireland. I am a flag officer of OCC, which has about 3000 members around the world.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Top Ten Tips for Safer Sailing

These are things we learned, often the hard way, on three Atlantic crossings and many more offshore passages. What things have you learned that can help others sail long distances safely?

1. The No.1 rule of sailing: STAY ON THE BOAT! Having a healthy dose of fear of falling overboard can save your life. Remember: 'One hand for the boat, One for yourself.'

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Top Ten Tips for Safer Anchoring

by Daria Blackwell, co-author of Happy Hooking. The Art of Anchoring. 

We're starting the year with a new summary from our book with our top ten tips for anchoring safely. Do you have any tips to share with us?

1. Select your spot carefully. Do not anchor on a steeply sloping bottom, on a lee shore, or in close proximity to other vessels. Follow the lead of other vessels in the anchorage for method of anchoring (one anchor, how much scope, etc.).