Vernon Sewell Partner
Admiralty paper charts here to stay – a little while longer!
The UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) announced in February 2023 that its planned timetable for withdrawing the production of paper charts would be extended beyond the originally anticipated deadline of 2026 in response to user feedback. It is now likely that a paper chart service will be provided until at least 2030.
In July 2022, following consultation with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) and other national user groups, the UKHO announced its intention to stop producing its portfolio of ADMIRALTY Standard Nautical Charts (SNCs) and Thematic Charts by late 2026.
This phased transition from paper chart production to digital products and services was in response to the fact that there has been a decline in demand for paper charts (reportedly down from 80% of sales in 2018 to just 16% in 2021), driven in part by the SOLAS-mandated transition to ECDIS (Electronic Chart Display and Information System) and by the growing recognition of the benefits of digital products and services. The expectation was that the ADMIRALTY Maritime Data Solutions digital navigation portfolio could be updated in near real-time, greatly enhancing safety of life at sea.
The proposed 2026 deadline was, however, dependent on having the right digital alternatives and technology in place, as well as complying with any regulatory requirements. The UKHO also acknowledged the importance of helping users who might have logistical or digital barriers to adopting digital navigation to make the switch, particularly as the UKHO is the Primary Charting Agency for 63 coastal states and territories.
The UKHO contemplated phasing out in the first instance charts where demand was low and maintenance was high. It indicated that larger-scale charts would probably be removed first as the locations they covered typically received fewer individual vessel visits and the charts themselves often needed the most updates.
The UKHO’s decision reflects a similar initiative from the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), which produces paper charts for the US (and many other countries) and which decided in 2019 to phase out paper nautical chart production by January 2025. The NOAA aimed to improve the quality of its electronic chart products and to provide wider scale coverage. Similarly, the Australian Hydrographic Office decided in 2020 to rationalize the Australian paper chart portfolio and concentrate instead on new editions of ENCs (Electronic Navigation Charts).
This sunsetting process was admittedly going to have a significant impact on users across the marine, naval and leisure sectors. It would be a real challenge for mariners who had placed their trust in ADMIRALTY paper charts over the years to go digital. Hence the comprehensive and ongoing consultation process with key stakeholders and user groups.
These consultations have already made clear to the UKHO that more time is required to address the needs of specific users who do not yet have viable alternatives to paper chart products. Among other things, the original timetable was thought to be too tight because of a lack of MCA/UKHO approved ECDIS systems. The MCA has been asked to approve electronic charts and display systems as an alternative to Admiralty paper charts and has indicated that it will try to approve chart plotters and similar for recreational use before paper charts are phased out.
Significantly also, SOLAS-compliant ECDIS is used in large commercial shipping but is inappropriate for smaller commercial vessels such as fishing vessels which nonetheless need access to official charts. MCA coded vessels, for example charter or sailing boats, are also required to carry paper charts as a back-up. Mini-ECDIS for smaller vessels is one proposal being discussed, but still needs to be approved and regulated within the industry before it can be regarded as an effective solution.
The key concern is that some users might be left behind with no viable alternatives to paper charts when they are phased out. As a result, the deadline has been extended to allow the UKHO, in collaboration with the IMO and the IHO (International Hydrographic Organization) to move forward at a more measured pace.
Notwithstanding the delay in completing this paper to digital transition, the UKHO remains committed to a digital future. However, it intends to achieve digitalization without compromising navigational safety and while prioritizing user needs.
Without doubt, ECIDS can significantly enhance safe navigation where it is used correctly. Most large commercial vessels have already adopted a digital platform that makes it easier and quicker to access and update ENCs. These ENCs then interface with other navigational equipment such as AIS (Automatic Identification System) and ARPA (automatic radar plotting aid).
However, those who are still using paper charts for navigation will need to prepare themselves and their vessels for digital-based navigation. The installation of compliant equipment onboard and the training of relevant crew remains key even before 2030.
Finally, it should be kept in mind that there are other providers of paper charts in the market. Nonetheless, the UKHO’s decision to stop printing paper charts after having done so for 223 years is a clear sign of the times.
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