Chart Transplant: New Digital Charting from NOAA

The NOAA migration from raster to vector electronic charting and the NOAA ENC electronic navigational chart viewer brings substantial change. 

We all love to hate the gov-mint, but NOAA’s transition from paper to digital charts, raster to vector charts, and the next-gen ENC electronic navigational chart viewer is the first evidence we’ve seen in a long time that sometimes the government does get things right. In 2019 NOAA announced their five-year plan to sunset paper and raster (scanned) charts and switch over to completely digital vector charts by January of 2025. Stage by stage over the past few years we’ve seen changes in individual updated electronic charts, the ENC viewer, the bathymetric data viewer (BVD), and other NOAA “products” focused on digital chartography. And at this point, it’s safe to say that these updates are shockingly beneficial — and can actually help you catch more fish. 

New NOAA Electronics Charts 

Raster charts, the digital scans of old-school paper charts, may have had a familiar look but were inferior to vector charts in a number of ways. Vector charts are built digitally from the ground up, can incorporate multiple datatbases, and can be easily updated and/or modified. Of course, as different companies create vector charts some have a nasty habit of designing them to work only with their own specific brands. Hence, you can’t always plug a chip sold by Company A into Company B’s MFD, and expect it to work. 

The ENC viewer on startup. Image courtesy of NOAA.

Created by and for U.S. taxpayers, NOAA’s vector chartography is open and free for all to use. However, it’s important to note that most MFD manufacturers have seen fit to exclude the use of NOAA’s ENCs on some or all of their units (um… maybe so you have to buy their proprietary charts?). We’re going to call out Furuno and give them a tip of the hat for being an exception, providing you with the ability to run NOAA’s charts, among others, right at the helm even on their top-end TZTouch3 system. You’ll have to check the specs for units from other brands to see if running them is an option, but don’t get your hopes up. Even if it isn’t possible, however, you still stand to gain from the new NOAA charts, especially via the ENC viewer. 

The ENC charts themselves are comprehensive, easy to read, and have some major league advantages over the old charts. They can be searched for street address, place, or waterbody names, making it far easier to locate a cove you heard about or a point alleged to be a hotspot. You can measure distances from one place to another or across a multi-waypoint route by moving your mouse and clicking. And the depth of the data they can display is utterly amazing — everything from customizable depth contours to ground surface elevation, along with all the stuff we’re used to seeing in NOAA charts like markers, lights, etc. 

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Of course, there’s room for improvement. Significantly annoying to us truck-driving, burger-eating ‘Merican types, depth soundings automatically pop up in meters and you have to re-set them to feet or fathoms (or train yourself to think like a European). The database is so massive that when searching for a place with a common name you may come up with dozens of returns to sort through. Some of the new icons are unfamiliar, and if you download the guide to symbols, abbreviations, and terms (U.S. Chart No.1), you’ll be greeted by a 132 page PDF which is rather difficult to navigate in and of itself. Our biggest knock, however, is that clicking on symbols doesn’t get you a pop-up explanation of just what they are, you have to actually go look them up. Even taking all of this into account, if grading the new ENCs we’d have to give them an A- or at the very least a B+. 

The ENC Viewer 

As we mentioned, even if you can’t bring the NOAA ENCs up on your chartplotter screen you’ll still find them quite useful via the ENC viewer. The viewer is a geographic information system (GIS) which essentially acts like a map on the web. In the past it presented raster charts which you could choose and open, but now it’s been updated to the vector format. Go to the website, and you’re greeted with a wide view of the United States including Alaska and Hawaii, clear down to Central America. Small red boxes outline all of the available charts, and as you zoom in, the system automatically zooms to the chart of the area with the best detail. You can zoom in incredibly tight, to the point that you’re looking at individual docks. Using the viewer it’s also possible to customize what you’re looking at, including or excluding different data layers or adjusting display properties.  

Naturally, the viewer also isn’t perfect. It displays functionality for overlaying multiple forms of GIS mapping (such as satellite imagery and topography), but getting many of these data layers can be complex and confusing, and the ability to display them may depend on map scale, a needed subscription, or data imports. And yes, the viewer does get glitchy once in a while and on occasion may freeze up and require a restart.  

Measuring the distance of a trip is fast and easy; also note the GPS coordinates in the lower left, which always match up to cursor position.

The bottom line? If you have an internet connection and a computer, the viewer becomes an awesome at-home planning tool. You can also access it via a tablet or cell phone, and if your MFD is internet-browsing-capable you can bring it up at the helm through that mode, as well. While some of the advanced functions are indeed confusing, using the viewer at a more basic level is extremely intuitive. You’ll be looking at charts in multiple scales, measuring distances, and checking out new areas in a matter of seconds. Overall it’s a fantastic tool and earns a solid A. 

The BVD Viewer 

Another digital NOAA undersea product that’s free to all yet vastly underused is the bathymetric data viewer, or BVD. The BVD essentially gives you a look at the undersea view of the bottom, showing bathymetric imagery for charted (and some uncharted) features like wrecks, which NOAA has scanned. It’s not exactly new, but the BVD used to display through a see-through of the old raster charts and was recently updated to display through the new ENC charts. 

Left is a wide view of San Diego Bay; at right is what you’ll see via the BVD viewer when zoomed in on the surveyed area the arrow points to, after removing the ENC layer. 

The view of the exact same spot in San Diego Bay via the ENC viewer (meters changed to feet as a matter of principal).

Like the ENC viewer the BVD starts with a US map, but instead of chart outlines you’re greeted with highlights indicating the areas NOAA has scanned. Finding locations and zooming in and out is intuitive, but seeing the bottom features you’re looking for is not. You’ll need to add and subtract map layers since one can hide another; the Bathymetric Attributed Grids and Digital Elevation Models are key, so be sure to try checking and unchecking these boxes frequently. This service is much more difficult to get used to than the ENC viewer and coverage is extremely spotty, but in some cases, it will provide a very illuminating view of what’s laying on the bottom. 

Furuno brings NOAA chartography right to the helm; note that using Furuno’s Personal Bathymetric Generator you can also enhance the data you see on-screen and harness functions like Follow-It, to transform constant-depth contours into an autopilot route — all without having to spend additional cash on proprietary charts.

Okay: are you ready to get with modern times? Because believe it or not, NOAA has already arrived there with ENC charting. Updates are regular and significant, and by the time you read this NOAA may have already fixed some of the glitches we’ve noted and improved the system yet again. This really does seem to be a case where the gov-mint people got it right. Who woulda thunk it?! 

Lenny Rudow …has been a writer and editor in the marine field for over two decades, and has authored seven books. He is currently the Angler in Chief at Rudow's FishTalk Magazine, is Electronics and Fishing Editor for BoatUS Magazine, and is a contributing editor to several other publications. His...