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Selecting Paper Charts

Paper Charts

Paper charts are key navigational tools on nearly every vessel, even with advances in technology that make digital electronic charts affordable and convenient. They serve as a primary means to plan and record routes, an accurate backup to electronic charts, and a reliable source of interesting information about the waters where you enjoy boating. Print-on-demand technology now makes paper charts as up-to-date as possible, with the latest Notice to Mariners, corrections, and NGA & NOAA safety updates available daily.

Who creates them?

Charts of U.S. waters are created by the National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which produces more than 1000 charts covering the U.S. coastlines and major waterways, plus Coast Pilots, and tide and current tables. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), produces charts of international waters, lists of lights, sailing directions, sight reduction tables, pilot charts and other publications to complement charts. The Canadian Hydrographic Service (CHS) is the source for charts of Canadian waters.

Chart Selection

Since U.S. charts are in the public domain and are not subject to copyright law, many private companies produce them in paper and digital form. NOAA also offers their own digital versions of their paper charts, available for free download at:

We carry an extensive selection of paper charts. Consider the following selection criteria when choosing a chart:

Scale: Common chart scales range from large to small (1:10,000 to 1:2,000,000, for example). Remember, a large-scale chart covers a small area, and a small-scale covers a large area. The larger the second number in the ratio, the smaller the scale, and the larger the geographical area that is covered.

Kinds of charts: World and international sailing charts have the smallest scale and are used when voyaging across oceans or over a long stretch of coastline. For example, Chart 530 covers the huge area from the Aleutian Islands to Mexico and Hawaii at a scale of 1:4,860,700 with very little detail (1" = 77 miles). General charts are considered coastal cruising charts with a scale between 1:150,000 (1" = 2.4 miles) and 1:600,000 (1" = 10 miles). They show much more detail than international sailing charts but still not enough for navigating close to shore or sailing into port. Coast charts provide excellent detail for coastal navigation and all but the smallest harbors at a scale from 1:40,000 to 1:80,000 (1" = 0.63 to 1.26 miles). Harbor charts show a relatively small area in great detail and should be used when making port. Often they have insets that show critical areas at a scale of 1:10,000.

Enhanced Content: Many private companies have taken the core data from government charts and enhanced it to provide additional value. Waterproof charts are printed on synthetic paper for use on deck or in small boats. They are often printed on both sides, so you get twice as much information on each chart. Chartbooks provide all the charts for a single area, the Intracoastal Waterway or Lake Michigan, for example, so you can keep your entire route in one space-saving book. Fish/dive charts show GPS positions for reefs, fishing grounds and wrecks.

Paper Charts

Being Chart Savvy

Latest editions: Many charts change frequently, so look for the edition date, which is printed at the bottom. A list of the most current editions of NOAA charts is available at

Chart Catalogs: NOAA, NGA and CHS publish free chart catalogs, which we have available in our warehouses. These show the coverage areas for each chart and are essential for planning a trip.

Chart Number 1: If you are unfamiliar with reading charts, ask for a copy of Chart No. 1 (Model 4378436), Symbols, Abbreviations, and Terms, which explains the basic chart elements used on nautical charts. The Canadian version is Model 247114.

Depth: Water depth may be given in feet, fathoms or meters, and is generally measured at low water. This means that it is a conservative measure of whether you’ll run aground; generally the tide level will be higher and you’ll have some breathing room.

The Compass Rose: There are usually several compass roses printed on a chart, oriented to the North. Direction is measured as a straight line from the center of the circle to a degree number on the compass rose. The true direction is printed around the outside, the magnetic direction around the inside of the compass rose. The variation, which is the difference between true and magnetic North, is printed in the middle of the rose, along with the annual change.

Charts Available From West Marine

Print-On-Demand by OceanGrafix

Print-On-Demand charts provide the latest updated information, and have become the standard for timely accuracy. They include all the latest local and regional Notices To Mariners corrections, accurate at the time of printing. Because of this guaranteed up-to-date accuracy, Print-On-Demand charts add an important level of safety for mariners, since coastlines gradually change, sandbars move, storms rearrange submerged hazards and the government alters its regional information. These charts are approved by NOAA, meet USCG carriage requirements, and are SOLAS compliant.

Full size Print-On-Demand charts are single-sided, either 36" or 42" wide, and between 36" and 60" in length. Distinctive graphics and vibrant colors make them easy to read, and they include added safety information, boating tips and emergency procedures. Our Print-On-Demand charts are printed on heavy-duty water-resistant paper and are shipped directly to you. Print-On-Demand charts are also available in-store at our Ft. Lauderdale and San Diego locations.

Standard Paper Charts

The government is no longer printing lithographic nautical charts as of April 13, 2014, and after our warehouses and stores run out, they will no longer be available. It will then be Print-On Demand only. This should not be a problem for boaters, since these old fashioned charts could be months (or even years) out of date. However, as one product ends, another begins. NOAA is now providing about a thousand high-resolution printable nautical charts - almost the entire NOAA suite of charts - as PDF files. The PDF nautical charts, which are almost exact images of the traditional charts currently printed by lithography, are free. They're updated weekly. Go to