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Admiralty stops printing paper nautical charts after 222 years

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 26/07/2022 Henry Bodkin
The broadness of paper charts will be missed - John van Hasselt - Corbis/ Sygma © John van Hasselt - Corbis/ Sygma The broadness of paper charts will be missed - John van Hasselt - Corbis/ Sygma

Since the first maritime maps were printed by the department of the Admiralty 222 years ago, they have been a mainstay of vessels across the world.

Nearly two centuries after hydrographer Alexander Dalrymple’s charts were first produced from copper plates in 1800, the blue and yellow maps represent the global standard for nautical navigation, from naval tankers to pleasure yachts.

But soon all that will change as the UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) revealed on Tuesday that from 2026, its roughly 3,500 charts, used by 90 per cent of ships trading internationally, will be available only digitally amid a decline in demand.

Currently the UKHO, which is the primary charting agency for 63 coastal states and territories, produces a range of ADMIRALTY Standard Nautical Charts.

These include large-scale charts, which typically depict the approaches to harbours and ports, medium-scale charts, covering frequently used coastal areas, and small-scale charts, for use in more open seas.

Alexander Dalrymple’s charts were first produced from copper plates in 1800 © Provided by The Telegraph Alexander Dalrymple’s charts were first produced from copper plates in 1800

One commercial sailing instructor told The Telegraph the digital move was “no surprise” but “quite sad”, and might disadvantage older leisure sailors who are less tech-savvy.

Melvyn Wallhead, a yachtmaster and RYA (Royal Yachting Association) instructor at Northumbria Sailing, said: “In a way it will be sad because they are big and you can get a greater impression of the area rather than looking at a seven-inch screen.

“Older people might find it a little bit more difficult.”

‘Rapid decline’ in demand for paper charts

The agency said the decision had been prompted by a “rapid decline” in demand for paper charts, with more sailors using electronic devices on board.

However, many sailors currently use non-official navigation systems, which warn they should not be used as a replacement for government-produced charts.

Admiralty Facts © Provided by The Telegraph Admiralty Facts

One popular brand, GEONAV, displays the automatic warning: “The electronic chart is an aid to navigation designed to facilitate the use of authorised government charts, not to replace them.”

The digital shift raises the prospect of future mariners having no paper backup to rely on in the event their electronic navigation systems fail.

It also raises questions over the teaching navigation skills, such as learning to plot a course, which is best done with a physical chart.

Mr Wallhead added that students would likely continue to learn with the paper charts, but that these would not be products of the UKHO.

The switch to digital raises the prospect of future mariners having no paper backup to rely on if their electronic navigation systems fail © Provided by The Telegraph The switch to digital raises the prospect of future mariners having no paper backup to rely on if their electronic navigation systems fail

The hydrographic department of the Admiralty initially produced charts only for use by the Royal Navy, but in 1821 began making them commercially available.

Roughly 14,000 electronic navigational charts are thought to be currently available within the Admiralty portfolio.

Updating charts is a laborious process

Updating the catalogue of paper charts to reflect new hazards and changes to coastal structures is a laborious and expensive process and UKHO, a direct descendent of the former Admiralty, which was subsumed into the Ministry of Defence in 1964, has been doing so less assiduously in recent years.

Keeping paper charts updated is a laborious and expensive process for the UK Hydrographic Office - Asar Studios / Alamy Stock Photo © Provided by The Telegraph Keeping paper charts updated is a laborious and expensive process for the UK Hydrographic Office - Asar Studios / Alamy Stock Photo

Peter Sparkes, chief executive of UKHO, said: “We understand the significance of this announcement, given the distinguished history of the UKHO’s paper chart production and the trust that mariners have placed in ADMIRALTY charts over the generations. 

“We will support users of SNCs during the withdrawal of our paper chart portfolio and work with our distributors to help users switch to digital alternatives between now and our planned date of 2026.”

Baroness Goldie, Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence, said: “As one of the world’s leading authorities on navigational charts, the UKHO is well positioned to recognise the need to deliver a range of digital solutions that enhance safety and data accuracy.

“The decision to focus on digital products and services makes strategic and commercial sense, helping usher in a new era of maritime navigation, which will be powered by digital innovations.”

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