Monday, August 5, 2019—Revolutionizing Nautical Chart Distribution

There is a revolution going on in international nautical charting, the significance of which is only slowly being recognized.  I refer to the chart distribution options at

but we need some background to appreciate what is happening. An earlier introduction (Best International Chart Deal Ever) describes the types of charts being offered, but I want to stress now the revolutionary aspects of this program.

That introduction points out we are discussing electronic charts, not paper charts, and we are talking about international charts, not US charts of US waters—electronic charts of US waters are the best in the world, and they are free, not just to American mariners but to all mariners. So they are in a class of their own.

We are discussing charts for all the rest of the world, covering the waters most mariners sail in now and most American mariners want to sail in at some point, at which time they will face, abruptly, the fact that international charts are expensive and in many cases, it is not even clear where to buy them. Again, for background, we are discussing official Hydrographic Office charts, not third party renditions of official charts that may or may not be up to date or even correct in the first place. (One source of inexpensive global charts brags that they make 2,000 chart updates every day!  One of our instructors, after a solo voyage from Portland, OR to Glacier Bay, AK and back, during which he confronted “dangerous rocks” that were non-existent, and other truly dangerous rocks that were not marked, would suggest they are not "updating" often enough.)

So what is the revolution? 

...and what allows this revolution to take place at this time?

The first revolution, as noted in the introduction, is the price. For example, all charts, all scales of Australia for 35 euros; all charts, all scales of British Columbia, Canada for 20 euros, both being a tenth to a hundredth of the price of those from other sources.  These include updates for one year; after which the charts remain active on your computers, but you no longer receive updates until repurchased.

The second revolutionary step is the ease of purchase and installation. This can only be appreciated by those who have purchased, registered, and installed official charts (S-63 format) from other sources in the past. The O-charts procedure is well designed and easy to use, plus they have excellent instructions, including videos and support. The process takes just minutes and is even easier after the first set of charts has been installed. See the O-charts video linked in our Introduction and our new videos below on Use of O-Chart Dongles.

Third, and maybe most notable revolutionary step, is the ability to view the purchased charts on multiple computers using their new USB dongle system. Most sources of commercial charts allow for installation on two systems, where "system" is defined as the combination of computer and software. That is, use them with the same or different nav program on two computers, or two different nav programs on the same computer. After those two installations, the charts cannot be viewed on any other system.  To my knowledge, none of the sources for official charts offer anything like this, nor a way to "un-install" from one computer to free up a new install on another.

O-charts has the same limit of two installs, but they offer the unique opportunity to assign one of the installations to a USB dongle. Once that is set up, the dongle itself is an authorization to use charts registered to it. The dongle does not include the charts; they still have to be downloaded to the computer in use, but when the dongle is inserted you can view the charts. This means you could use the charts on two or more computers that you own, or you could take the dongle with you when sailing on another vessel using its computers. Or you could loan, swap, or sell the charts to someone else if you no longer need them.

If you cared to, you can use both of the allowed installations to go onto two separate dongles. The dongles cost 19 euros (~$25 with shipping to the US), but that could still be a cost effective solution. One dongle covers all charts you purchase.

Why is this revolution possible now?

First, these charts only work on OpenCPN. So, the fact that OpenCPN has matured to the point it has today, gathering support and use by thousands of mariners worldwide, is the cornerstone to the whole project.  There is now a large enough user set to justify the custom licensing, production, and support needed for this chart system. Once restricted to a specific nav program (OpenCPN) the charts can be distributed in SENC format, which simplifies the distribution.

Next, giving up the credential of "meeting carriage requirements" and not referring to these as "official charts" bypasses all the complexities of the IHO regulations on ECDIS, which in turn permits Hydrographic Offices to license the program-specific SENC versions without infringing on their sales and contracts with shipping companies.  Now recreational and smaller commercial mariners can be confident they are using charts equivalent to the official ones, and shipping companies with large budgets and staffs for handling these matters can carry on with their standard system of using "official charts."

The SENC format (called OE-SENC charts) use the same standards for content (S-57) and viewing (S-52) as the official ENC, and OpenCPN does an excellent job in adhering to the primary guidelines of S-52. ENC contain much more information than the corresponding paper charts and RNC, but there is a new approach to chart reading that is required.  Our book Introduction to Electronic Chart Navigation: With an Annotated ECDIS Chart No. 1 outlines the use of these new charts as well as providing a resource for symbols and a catalog of objects and attributes shown on the charts.

What's Next?

At this stage we can only hope that more nations join in to offer their charts in SENC format. There are quite a few which are nicely presented, interactively at the O-Charts website. Central America and the rest of the SW Pacific are notably missing. It will be interesting to learn more of why other charts are not available. If it is a matter of licensing fees, then the more we use the ones available, the more likely the system will expand.  Also, we are  trying to do out part by promoting the use of ENC charts. Our text (cited above) is one step, and we plan a series of videos on the use of ENC.

Related Articles with video illustrations.
    About SENC charts

    Assigning SENC charts to a dongle

Historic note:  For completeness I might add that several proprietary chart providers did at one point, many years ago, use a dongle to copyprotect their charts. This was then not an option; the dongle had to be installed to run them at all, and it was not a way to run them on different computers. It was more a belt and suspenders copy protection that was not at all popular, and did not last very long. The o-charts dongle usage is fundamentally different than these earlier systems.

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