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