If there’s one thing that separates the lifelong boater from the casual weekend variety, it’s the love of charts. Someone with a genuine passion for boats and the water can spend hours poring over the details -- shoals, channels, possible anchorages, distances between markets -- even if he or she never plans to go there. Charts have a sort of magic.
Alas, charts are also cumbersome, hard to stow, and have a high price tag -- about $20 -- which is why they’ve been replaced on many boats with chartbooks. The latter are conveniently compact and can get you safely from point A to point B, but they lack the mesmerizing detail of a larger chart. The same is true of the charts built into a GPS.
Well, here is some good news: NOAA makes all of its charts for the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf, Alaska, and Great lakes available online for free. These are complete charts -- hundreds of them -- with all of the useful details. You can’t print a chart full-size but what you can do is study an area you’re planning to visit, make notes, and print an enlarged section. The latter will be useful for getting details on harbors and anchorages you’re planning to visit.
For the more technologically advanced, NOAA also makes Digitized Charts
, called raster charts, available free online. Raster charts are digitized versions of NOAA paper charts. They used to only be available for a fee from MapQuest.
Raster charts can be computer-downloaded using software purchased from one of several companies. When the computer is linked to a GPS, it can be used like a chart-plotter. And Raster charts can also be updated online for free.
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