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    The End of Paper Nautical Charts

    Written by

    Meghan Neal

    contributing editor

    Vintage nautical chart of Chesapeake Delaware Bay from 1862. Via eBay

    The US has been surveying the nation's waters since Thomas Jefferson first ordered a survey of the East Coast in 1807, and printing out large lithographic nautical charts for sailors to navigate with for nearly as long. Now, starting in April, the government's paper charts will be printed no more.

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced today that the analog maps will be phased out in favor of more up-to-date efficient electronic charts, in order to save money.

    Nautical maps alert sailors and fisherman to obstacles hidden underwater, such as rocks, shallow water, or shipwrecks. They also offer details about the coastline, harbors, bridges, tides, currents, and so on. More accurately, they're those old-timey, 4-by-3-foot maps that harken back to the colonial days and remind you of pirates and look great on the living room wall. The agency sells them at $20 a pop, the cost of printing them. 

    Indeed, the charts have been more of a collectors item for a while now, since they're so quickly outdated. "Fortunately, advancements in computing and mobile technologies give us many more options than was possible years ago," Capt. Shep Smith, chief of Coast Survey's Marine Chart Division, said in the NOAA announcement.

    Sailors today usually opt for on-demand, privately printed maps that are far more up-to-date and accurate. NOAA-certified cartographers keep the charts as digital graphics that can be easily updated weekly and printed on normal paper. Or they'll skip the printing altogether and view them as a PDF on a tablet. New lithographic charts, by comparison, are printed once a year at best and more likely once every several years, according to the agency.

    Clearly, the digital alternatives are a superior tool—just like road maps and transit maps. But a boat captain standing at the helm scrolling through his iPad just doesn't feel quite right.

    To that end, here's a brief ode to awesome nautical charts:

    Antique nautical chart of the world from 1778, via Wikimedia

    Nautical charts from Europe are even older! Here's the Mediterranean Sea in 1600 AD, via Wikimedia

    This one shows the route from my hometown of Portsmouth, New Hampshire to Cape Ann in Massachusetts. Via Harvard

    Nautical Chart of Crescent City, California from 1859, via Wikimedia

    New York Harbor, present day. Via NOAA

    San Francisco Bay in 1859, shortly after the California Gold Rush. Via Amazon

    Cool stuff, right? I'm probably going to go buy a few up now—they’ll probably be worth something someday.