Digital maritime navigation

Global Sea Change

Montreal-based Marine Press is helping change the world of ocean-going travel.

Digital maritime navigation

Navigation charts for commercial shipping are “what put us on the map,” says Jean-François (Jeff) Drolet, Director of Sales and Marketing for Montreal-based Marine Press. His company’s ability to stay current with industry changes is keeping it there.

Twenty-three years ago, Marine Press was in danger of sinking. In 1992, shipping industry veteran George Arts purchased a struggling little store in Montreal that sold navigation charts and books, as well as items such as flags and binoculars, mostly to the leisure sailing market. Arts steadily expanded the sale of paper charts to the commercial shippers. In the mid-1990s, he received a couple of floppy disks loaded with PDFs of nautical data from the British Admiralty. He and his employees used the content to develop digital charts that could be sent to ships on DVDs. And with that, the company had a new product line — and a foothold on a new market.

Today, Marine Press’s reach is global, and it’s grown into a multimillion-dollar company with 60 employees, about 24 of whom work on the IT side of the business. Its charts cover all of the world’s ports and navigable waterways, and its customer base includes everything from container vessels and oil tankers to cruise ships, yachts, and tug boats. Language is no barrier — “99.9 percent of the books we sell are in English,” says Drolet, explaining that it’s a nearly universal language in the maritime shipping industry. (The company’s distributors sometimes translate the material into other languages.)

Mariners use the charts to determine water depths, port information, radio-signaling information, and the presence of restricted whale-crossing areas. “Right now, you need about 20 books to complete what mariners call a passage plan,” Drolet notes.

That will eventually change, however. The International Hydrographic Organization, an intergovernmental organization that oversees the charting of the world’s waterways, has mandated that the marine industry shift to electronic navigation. E-navigation will “ensure safer navigation and provide real-time information to mariners so they can make better decisions at sea, avoid accidents, and get to their destinations faster,” Drolet says.

Marine Press’s Digitrace e-navigation package includes not only charts but also a service that updates navigational information via email. Drolet notes, however, that the shift to e-navigation will be a gradual process. The initial cost for shipping firms to create that onboard IT infrastructure is “considerable” — from $20,000 to $50,000 per ship. But once the system is set up, it can save a great deal of money. “Once a crew is familiar with digital information, they’ll start slowly phasing out paper,” Drolet says.

Currently, only about 70 percent of the navigation information that Marine Press tracks is available in digital format. “Paper is still a very high percentage of the business,” Drolet notes. “We still send books and other materials, and will continue to do so for quite some time.”

Whether shipping DVDs or hard copy, Marine Press uses FedEx Express to ship its crucial maritime information. “We ship a lot of packages — a lot of goods that need to arrive on time,” Drolet says. “We know that when we give FedEx something, it’s going to get there.” Marine Press also relies on FedEx customs expertise to ensure that the paperwork is correct and its information doesn’t get beached in customs. Indeed, a world of commerce depends on that data to stay afloat.

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