ELEC­TRON­ICS

CARTOGRAPHY LESSONS LEARNED WHILE SEARCH­ING FOR THE BEST CHARTS OF CUBA.

Power & Motor Yacht - - IN THIS ISSUE - BY BEN EL­LI­SON

What charts of Cuba can teach us.

PLUS: GoFree cap­tures and har­nesses a boat's data; the Sound-Panel from Fu­sion.

Con­trary to com­mon un­der­stand­ing, many de­tailed, up-to-date, and well-crafted of­fi­cial pa­per charts of Cuba do ex­ist. Un­for­tu­nately, they’re not easy to own and the good work of the Cuban hy­dro­graphic ser­vice is not yet fully avail­able in any elec­tronic form. In fact, many “cur­rent” elec­tronic Cuba charts are based on shock­ingly old data with sub­stan­tial chunks of crit­i­cal cruis­ing de­tail miss­ing. But vis­it­ing boaters do have at least one good cur­rent chart choice. El Ser­vi­cio Hidro­grá­fico y Geodésico de la República de Cuba, more sim­ply known as GeoCuba, is mov­ing into the mod­ern world, and the back story re­veals chart is­sues every nav­i­ga­tor should un­der­stand, with a Cuban twist.

On a lazy spring Cuba cruise on the Panorama II, a two-masted mo­tor­sailer with 25 cab­ins op­er­ated by Va­ri­ety Cruises, I took along five sets of dig­i­tal Cuba charts to com­pare on my iPad. The dif­fer­ences be­tween them were both alarm­ing and con­fus­ing. I’ve never seen charts that dif­fered so much in qual­ity for the same area, and I sub­se­quently learned that even the best prob­a­bly do not in­clude all the nav data that the Cuban HO has col­lected, though some in­clude in­for­ma­tion that the Cubans them­selves may not have.

For­tu­nately, it was ac­tu­ally the Greek skip­per on Panorama II who was re­spon­si­ble for the nav­i­ga­tion, along with his mates, and their pri­mary charts were pa­per ones pro­duced by GeoCuba. (His­tor­i­cally it’s been dif­fi­cult for boaters to pur­chase these charts, even in Cuba, or sim­ply to find out what charts GeoCuba has, but there’s some good news on these is­sues—keep on reading.)

The watch of­fi­cers of the Panorama II ap­pre­ci­ated the ac­cu­rate de­tail avail­able on Cuban charts like the 1:25,000 scale Bahia de Cien­fue­gos 2015 edi­tion and they’re re­quired to use pa­per charts any­way—but they too yearned for the same data in elec­tronic form so they could con­tin­u­ously plot their po­si­tion. Sur­pris­ingly (though per­haps due to the lack of an ECDIS re­quire­ment and bud­get), the small cruise ship’s main nav­i­ga­tion soft­ware seemed to be OpenCPN free­ware dis­play­ing some sort of vec­tor charts that had lit­tle de­tail of Cuba. The first mate did have an An­droid tablet run­ning Navion­ics Mo­bile, which cur­rently of­fers one of the bet­ter data sets for Cuba, but first let’s dis­cuss the win­ner of my com­par­i­son test­ing.

The Panorama II nav­i­ga­tors were quite im­pressed by the NV Charts I could use to track the ship on my iPad and also on my An­droid phone. In fact, the pa­per-like NV dig­i­tal raster charts of Cien­fue­gos ap­peared to con­tain all the de­tail of the largest-scale Cuban pa­per charts, plus NV ex­tras like rec­om­mended cour­ses and click-to-show sketches of ma­jor navaids. I can’t say for sure that NV matches or ex­ceeds Cuban HO de­tail everywhere around the big is­land, but in com­par­i­son to the Garmin, C-Map, Navion­ics, and MapMe­dia charts I checked out, NV seemed su­pe­rior, usu­ally by a wide mar­gin.

While I’ve long ap­pre­ci­ated NV’s unique pa­per-and-pixel ap­proach to chart­mak­ing and the com­pany has been pro­duc­ing Cuban charts for some time, the NV Cuba South­west and Cuba North­west “com­bi­packs” I took along on my cruise are the re­sults of a ma­jor Cuba re­fresh NV in­tro­duced in 2015. They’re based on data from NV’s own sur­veys and “other sources”—a telling story I’ll get to. The NV package in­cludes a chart­book in a handy new “at­las” for­mat that’s about 16 inches high and 12 inches wide (when closed). The dig­i­tal ver­sion of the charts no longer comes on a CD, but the down­load rou­tine is easy and gen­er­ous.

The down­load scratch cards that come with NV Charts com­bi­packs may be es­pe­cially use­ful as the NV site is a lit­tle vague about the specifics. In short, you get two copies of en­crypted BSB-type elec­tronic charts that will work with PC nav­i­ga­tion pro­grams like Coastal Ex­plorer, MacENC, and, yes, OpenCPN. You can also down­load the charts to as many as five de­vices run­ning NV’s own Ap­ple, Google, or Win­dows chart­ing app, which has evolved nicely since I tried it in 2013. (Please note that all these chart copies are only meant to pro­vide backup and flex­i­bil­ity for one user, and vi­o­lat­ing this un­der­stand­ing may cause harm to those of us who play by the rules.)

Dig­i­tal-only NV charts of Cuba (and many other places) can also be pur­chased on SD card for Nav­ico plot­ters, downloaded for Ray-

marine plot­ters at the Light­house Chart Store, or ac­quired for sev­eral other wor­thy nav tools at Fu­gawi’s on­line chart store.

Let’s fo­cus on NV’s data sources be­cause isn’t that the key to good charts? Chart presentation is im­por­tant, but only if the nav data pre­sented is close to re­al­ity. Many of us who cruise the coasts of the U.S. or Europe may get com­pla­cent about chart ac­cu­racy, be­cause what­ever chart brand we use is based on qual­ity data from the same of­fi­cial source, like NOAA or the UKHO, but that at­ti­tude is folly in places like Cuba (as you’ll soon see).

I can only vaguely de­scribe how NV Charts sourced their Cuba charts even though I re­cently spoke at length with Hasko Schiedt, who founded NV in Ger­many with his wife, Conny, more than 35 years ago. In fact, Schiedt be­gan his an­swer to my “sources?” ques­tion with a story about how NV beat his own coun­try’s HO to mar­ket with qual­ity charts of East Ger­man wa­ters soon after the Ber­lin Wall came down in 1990. He says that’s when he fully re­al­ized he could en­dan­ger data sources by re­veal­ing their iden­tity, and he cited a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence with a Cuban car­tog­ra­pher who dis­ap­peared after sev­eral years of friendly meet­ings (and maybe more) at in­ter­na­tional hy­dro­graphic con­ven­tions. “Hope­fully, he got to drive a cab!” Schiedt said.

That may sound like the stuff of spy nov­els, but in­ter­na­tional chart-data sourc­ing is mys­te­ri­ous. Claims of pla­gia­rism are ram­pant, com­mer­cial chart man­u­fac­tur­ers of­ten re­sist re­veal­ing their sources for com­pet­i­tive rea­sons, and I find it quite cred­i­ble that some car­tog­ra­phers are more in­ter­ested in shar­ing their good work with mariners than abid­ing by the bu­reau­cratic rules they may work un­der. Add the U.S. em­bargo on Cuban im­ports that even ex­tends to for­eign com­pa­nies do­ing busi­ness in the U.S., and you’ve got a sourc­ing mess.

Now let’s see how the va­garies of data sourc­ing are re­vealed in other dig­i­tal Cuba charts, and en­joy some arm­chair cruis­ing along the way. I used the No­bel­tec TimeZero app to plan a route from Cien­fue­gos west­ward past Cayo Largo to a tan­ta­liz­ing an­chor­age off Cayo Cam­pos. I no­ticed how four dif­fer­ent charts were quilted to­gether to best fill the zoomed-out view, and judg­ing from their dif­fer­ent col­ors and font styles—rasters are es­sen­tially just scans of pa­per charts, after all—they’re all from dif­fer­ent sources. This turned out to be a bad sign, and if the data was in con­sis­tent vec­tor form, the hodge­podge of sources would not be ob­vi­ous at all. Why Cayo Cam­pos? I’d also bor­rowed a copy of Nigel Calder’s Cuba:

A Cruis­ing Guide— pub­lished in 1999 after a her­culean sur­vey cruise, but pos­si­bly be­ing up­dated as I write—and the prospect of a pre­serve with beau­ti­ful beaches, abun­dant lob­sters, and the chance to hang out with mon­keys got my at­ten­tion. And while Calder’s sug­gested “break­ing” reef en­try to the an­chor­age didn’t ap­peal even to my arm­chair cruis­ing style, the al­ter­nate route via the Canal­izo Aguar­di­ente seemed rea­son­able, and he’d cre­ated chartlets of both, ap­par­ently based on fairly de­tailed GeoCuba charts. (I did com­pare all these chart sets to the real world wher­ever Panorama II went, but she was too deep for Cayo Cam­pos and I didn’t get to set the itin­er­ary.)

But, dang, when I zoomed into MapMe­dia’s chart of the Aguar­di­ente Canal, it didn’t even show the nav aids that Calder had ei­ther copied from a Cuban chart or sur­veyed him­self more than 16 years ago. Un­for­tu­nately there’s no way in the TimeZero app to see the scale, date, or source of the chart be­ing dis­played—a com­mon prob­lem—but if you dig into the MapMe­dia on­line cat­a­log there’s a Caribbean chart list that looks pretty good for everywhere but Cuba.

Much of the coast, even the com­mer­cial en­try port of Cien­fue­gos, is only cov­ered to 1:150,000 scale, all the Cuba charts date to the mid-1990s, and, oh, some are marked on the ob­scure list as “in­ac­cu­rate” in terms of GPS plot­ting. I even came upon one scan with dead reck­on­ing pen­ciled on it, ap­par­ently by the for­mer owner.

I re­ally like us­ing the TimeZero app with MapMe­dia’s re­pro­cessed NOAA raster charts and, of course, they also work great on Fu­runo TimeZero mul­ti­func­tion dis­plays, but the value of a good nav app or plot­ter plum­mets if the charts are poor. (Note, how­ever, that Fu­runo MFDs can also dis­play MapMe­dia vec­tor charts based on Navion­ics, C-Map or HO data, so cruis­ing Cuba with a Fu­runo plot­ter may be pos­si­ble.)

I’ve also seen some great U.S. chart­ing in C-Map’s Plan2Nav app, and the rep­u­ta­tion of C-Map’s global cartography is high, but don’t pre­sume good Cuba cov­er­age. You can zoom in all you want on the charts, but a lack of de­tail means you won’t get any­more in­for­ma­tion about the reefs off the mon­key is­land or the back route through the canal.

But let’s credit C-Map for al­ways pro­vid­ing data-source in­for­ma­tion, even if the dat­ing looks ques­tion­able in this case while the source and scale sug­gest the over­all prob­lem. NGA vec­tor charts, also called DNCs, have al­ways seemed lim­ited in cov­er­age com­pared to what many na­tions pro­duce for them­selves, es­pe­cially in terms of non-com­mer­cial cruis­ing ar­eas, and some of the pa­per ver­sions are “No longer avail­able for pub­lic sale.”

The usu­ally lov­able Garmin Bluechart Mo­bile (BCM) app had a very sim­i­lar Cuba prob­lem. Charts for the same area are based on the same 1:150,000 scale US27142 NGA chart that C-Map sourced, and I’ll bet that the 1994 edi­tion date (like MapMe­dia’s) is cor­rect. I also won­der ex­actly what got cor­rected to 2011 since all three of these chart providers do not seem to use any Cuban HO data, prob­a­bly be­cause of the em­bargo.

Fi­nally, there’s the Navion­ics Boat­ing app and thank­fully this data looked pretty good, at least for Cayo Cam­pos and some other ar­eas I ex­am­ined. I could see the canal nav-aid de­tails, a cruiser’s Com­mu­nity Edit, and how the SonarChart view seemed to il­lu­mi­nate the reef en­try (though “nu­mer­ous par­tially sub­merged steel stakes” still puts me off ).

Un­for­tu­nately Navion­ics typ­i­cally does not in­di­cate data sources on its app or any of its other chart for­mats. But, then again, the Navion­ics We­bApp lets you see any of its charts be­fore pur­chase (and wouldn’t it be nice if the other chart providers fol­lowed suit). Upon

ques­tion­ing, Navion­ics did al­low that they have “on­go­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions with” GeoCuba though “we can­not dis­close de­tails at this time.”

That sounds sim­i­lar to what I heard from NV Charts, which not sur­pris­ingly also cov­ers the Cayo Cam­pos area well. While I did no­tice that NV had more de­tail than Navion­ics in a few spots, both pro­vide much more chart in­for­ma­tion than the other three and I think it’s due to some level of ac­cess to Cuba’s own data. So it’s good news that Garmin and C-Map both say they’re work­ing to es­tab­lish re­la­tion­ships with GeoCuba, and I’m sure that MapMe­dia is sim­i­larly in­clined. Plus, there’s ev­i­dence that GeoCuba data is get­ting more ac­ces­si­ble to in­di­vid­u­als and car­tog­ra­phers.

I only re­cently thought to ask Blue­wa­ter Books & Charts about its Cuba of­fer­ings, which was dumb since the com­pany’s style is to of­fer every­thing avail­able, along with ex­pert ad­vice that’s honed by cus­tomer feed­back. Plus, the Ft. Laud­erdale lo­ca­tion means the Caribbean is Blue­wa­ter’s back­yard. But it was re­as­sur­ing to have the sales­per­son pretty much af­firm what I’d con­cluded on my own in Cuba, which is to say that many of the dig­i­tal Cuba charts sold by Blue­wa­ter are not very good.

Blue­wa­ter does rec­om­mend NV’s Cuba charts, though some of the com­pany’s skip­pers have re­ported is­sues. It also rec­om­mends Nigel Calder’s guide, though the com­pany is look­ing for­ward to Vol­ume 2 of Ch­eryl Barr’s Cruis­ing in Cuba as well as more in the Wa­ter­way Guide Cuba se­ries. Blue­wa­ter is most ex­cited about the GeoCuba Yachting Chart books it now of­fers ex­clu­sively in the U.S., and the fu­ture of its re­la­tion­ship with GeoCuba.

I later spoke with Blue­wa­ter’s owner, John Mann, who’s proud about how hard his team worked to es­tab­lish a smooth sys­tem for mov­ing charts from Cuba to Laud­erdale and pay­ments the other way; both are still tricky, even with some re­lax­ation of the em­bargo. He also lauds the qual­ity of the GeoCuba Yachting chart­books, which come in seven re­gions, with Cuba CK8 sort of an over­view—though I have to ex­press a lit­tle skep­ti­cism as I’ve never seen one and the de­tailed list­ings look light on large-scale cov­er­age. I com­pared for in­stance, GeoCuba Yachting Charts #2 with NV Charts Cuba South­west. Does the GeoCuba chart­book cover Cayo Cam­pos and sim­i­larly se­duc­tive cruis­ing spots around the Golfo De Bata­bano as well as NV? I don’t know for sure be­cause I may not fully un­der­stand how GeoCuba’s chart­books are laid out, but I’m hop­ing that Blue­wa­ter will put some de­tailed images on­line. And I hope that read­ers with Cuba chart ex­pe­ri­ence will speak up.

By Michael Peters

Man’s best friend goes boat­ing.

The mys­ter­ies of Cuban wa­ters are com­ing to light more and more.

NV Charts add click-to-show sketches of ma­jor navaids to de­tailed charts.

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