Our coastlines are precious. All the bits of the planet are precious in one way or another but I am somewhat painfully reminded of how fragile the coast is by the Deepwater Horizon incident. Thankfully the worst of the escaping oil is over now but there is still the problem of cleaning up the mess. The cost of this is eye watering and even when the money is spent it will not have really undone all the damage. Evidence from some of the world’s other great oil spills such as the Amoco Cadiz, the Exxon Valdez and the Torrey Canyon can still be found.
It is unlikely that we are going to stop drilling for oil or shipping it around the world in the near future. In fact it seems probable that we are going to see even more of it. Of the major (>700t) oil spills caused by tankers 36% were caused by grounding. Of course oil spills aren’t the only bad effect of a vessel going aground. Loss of cargo, loss of life, loss of the vessel, damage to the environment – the list goes on. It is a serious problem and while there is no simple answer it is probably reasonable to suggest that better navigation would help.
Electronic position fixing and electronic charts are a major step forward in improving navigational confidence and hence safety. This is not really disputed although there is a very valid note of caution with regards to over reliance on computer technology. In general it is such a good idea the 85th session of IMO's Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) approved a proposal to make the carriage of Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems (ECDIS) under SOLAS chapter V Safety of Navigation mandatory from 2012.
So it is probably fair to say that electronic charts make for safer seas. In fact a country can help protect its coast line from some of the massive damage that we’ve been talking about by the simple expedient of publishing free digital charts. The US already does this and is to be applauded for the foresight. Other countries may follow. Typically public funds are used to conduct the surveys and compile the charts in the first place so there is an argument that it is already morally wrong to be selling this data. However in light of the potential costs of not making this vital information as widely available as possible it is an easy step to recognize that a government has a responsibility to publish nautical charts for free.
Here is a list of sources of free ENC vector chart data.
There may be others and I’d be very interested to hear about them.
April 2010 the MV Shen Neng ran aground on Douglas Reef – some 15 miles off her planned course. The (fragile) reef was badly damaged and several tons of heavy fuel oil was leaked.