The UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) has announced that it is phasing out the use of Admiralty paper charts, which have been used by mariners to navigate the oceans for centuries. However, in the digital era, seafarers more often use electronic charts to track their positioning.
The Maritime Executive reports that production of UKHO’s global paper charts will cease by late 2026. The organisation will work with the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency to help remaining customers make the switch to digital navigation charts.
Peter Sparkes, UKHO’s chief executive, said: “The decision to commence the process of withdrawing from paper chart production will allow us to increase our focus on advanced digital services that meet the needs of today’s seafarers.”
He added: “Shipping is moving quickly towards a future underpinned by digital innovations, enhanced satellite connectivity at sea and optimized data solutions, supporting the next generation of navigation. The UKHO aims to be at the vanguard of this digital transition.”
The world has come a long way since mariners navigated the seas by plotting the position of the stars, and relying on a magnetic compass. The first official sea charts were issued by the Hydrographic Department in 1800. There were some charts published before this date, which had been produced by naval officers and seamen, who shared tips and information.
Printed charts representing the Baltic Sea and the North Sea have been dated from around 1450, at a time when merchant naval shipping was on the rise. They included information about fairway conditions, reefs near port entrances, shallow areas or sandbanks, and important landmarks that could be used as a navigation tool.
Nautical charts contain many symbols and abbreviations, because they originated from before the era of mass literacy, and many sailors had poor reading and writing skills. The symbols are now used as part of a standardised international system. Each country now issues charts of its coastal waters, which conform with an international standard.
Admiralty charts produced by the UKHO are used by over 40,000 defence and merchant ships around the world. The standard size of a paper chart is 30 x 25.5 inches, which is known as a ‘Double-elephant.’ While GPS navigation systems are used as the default method on modern ships, paper charts are still used for course plotting.
Admiralty paper charts are still also used for passage planning, because it allows the navigator to see in one place all the features that might affect the route, including tidal information, depths, seabed composition, hazards such as rocks and sandbanks, lighthouses, shipping traffic lanes, and details of the coastline.
Sparkes commented: “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.”
There are currently over 3,500 Standard Nautical Charts in production, which cover all the world’s major shipping routes, ports, and harbours.
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