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Author Topic:   Using Free NOAA Charts
jimh posted 12-18-2014 03:25 PM ET (US)   Profile for jimh   Send Email to jimh  
This thread will be a compilation of chart plotters that can make use of free NOAA charts. The government of the USA is very nicely providing free electronic charts of the coastal waters of the USA and the Great Lakes. These charts are very good--they are the official charts of these waters. Chart plotters that can use these charts tend to fall into three categories:

--professional grade commercial ship chart plotters, better known as electronic chart display and information system or ECDIS devices; these are expensive, large, and complicated systems usually found only on big ships;

--recreational grade chart plotters, found on boats from 10-footers to 200-footers; these devices are dedicated chart plotters but may be combined with other functions, such as echo-sounders or RADARs. They are common in recreational boating.

--computer-based chart plotters that run as application software on a general purpose computer operating system. THey are common for Windows-based, MacOS-based, and many UNIX-based operating systems. They are common in the home but not seen on smaller recreational boats because the host computer is typically not dedicated for boat-only use.

Here we will ignore the professional grade ECDIS devices, and concentrate on the recreational grade boat chart plotter and the computer-based applications.

There are two distinct types of free NOAA charts: raster charts and vector charts. Very briefly, the differences are as follows:

RASTER CHARTS, sometimes called RNC charts

--appear just like paper charts

--are typically high resolution scans of paper charts

--are provided in a format called BSB

--more details at NOAA website.

VECTOR CHARTS, sometimes called ENC charts

--are a vector database of objects and features

--can be zoomed in or out to any scale without becoming pixelated

--are provided in a format called S-57

--more details at NOAA website.

The difference between raster and vector charts is nicely explained by NOAA. Now that we have a bit of background on the free NOAA charts, let's look at what devices can use them.



Raymarine aSeries, cSeries, eSeries and gS Series chart plotter were recently revised to be able to use NOAA charts in either raster or vector format. Raymarine provides the NOAA charts in their own series, which they have named LIGHTHOUSE. I don't know if the standard format for raster or vector charts from NOAA (BSB or S-57) can work with Raymarine, or if only the LIGHTHOUSE format will work. But, in any case, Raymarine is providing the LIGHTHOUSE charts at no cost as downloads from a web server they manage. The LIGHTHOUSE charts are pre-packaged into collections by 11 regions and split into vector and raster collections. As far as I can tell, the only requirement for using these free charts with the Raymarine devices (mentioned above) is having their latest operating system software, LIGHTHOUSE II, installed on the device.


I can't find any reference from GARMIN that their products can use free NOAA charts. This is not too surprising because GARMIN has traditionally been a chart publisher themselves and has continually bundled their own electronic chart products with their chart plotters. It may be possible by (very) skillful use of some software products to manipulate NOAA charts into a format useful with Garmin chart plotters, but this appears to be a rather tedious process and not likely to be easy or free. You'd have to buy the software and then spend a some time manipulating the free NOAA chart into something that would work on a GARMIN plotter.


I can't find any reference that suggests you can use free NOAA charts with any of the many chart plotters made by NAVICO under their three brands. There are some private chart publishers--not the government--that adapt NOAA charts and use their data in new charts and then sell them in small collections for about $100. But you can't just get a free chart from NOAA to display on any NAVICO chart plotter, as far as I can tell.


Perhaps not quite in the category "recreational grade" Furuno does offer several models that can utilize NOAA charts, but they are quite expensive devices. The models called NavNet TZtouch can use NOAA charts. The least expensive version, a 9-inch screen, retails for almost $4,000. Furuno says "NavNet TZtouch is the only chart plotter on the market that provides users the ability to choose from official NOAA raster and vector charts...[or other options]." I don't know if that is still true, given Raymarine's new features.


Just about any computer based chart plotter application worth its salt is able to use free NOAA digital charts in either vector or raster format, and a list of them that was really comprehensive would be quite long. Instead of trying to compile such a list, I will mention a few products I have used.


PolarView NS from PolarNavy is a very good chart plotter which can easily download NOAA charts and easily keep them updated. It runs on MacOS, Unix, and Windows. It is only $40, and can be installed on five devices. This is the best bargain in computer-based chart plotting software. I run PolarView NS on my MacOS 10.6.8 laptop and just love it. I have remarked about PolarView in a prior discussion.

I know there are many other computer-based software packages, but I will leave them for others to describe, preferably by users that have run the software and found it to be good.

jimh posted 01-04-2015 01:07 PM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
As a corollary topic, let me ask readers this question:

Does the ability of the Raymarine chart plotters to use free NOAA charts make you more likely to consider buying a Raymarine chart plotter in preference to other brands which cannot use the free NOAA charts?

Hoosier posted 01-04-2015 01:53 PM ET (US)     Profile for Hoosier  Send Email to Hoosier     
Yes,because NOAA charts are kept current. Being able to download current charts before a trip is a big discriminator.
jimh posted 01-04-2015 02:47 PM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
David--I think there is a little hitch in your assessment: with the Raymarine chart plotters the NOAA charts may not be able to be uploaded into the plotter or updated from the plotter. This ability is not clearly specified for the Raymarine devices. They use NOAA charts, and they offer them for free, but you still get the charts from Raymarine, not from NOAA. How often Raymarine is updating their charts is not clear.

The ability to get the charts right from NOAA and to update the charts based on geographic region is a feature of POLAR VIEW NS that I truly love.

Hoosier posted 01-05-2015 06:50 PM ET (US)     Profile for Hoosier  Send Email to Hoosier     

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