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Electronics - Navigating the electronics market

We’ll help you navigate through the available options, from stand-alone plotters to integrated networks … and let’s not forget about paper charts

We’ll help you navigate through the available options, from stand-alone plotters to integrated networks … and let’s not forget about paper charts

The front had come through the Exumas early and stronger than expected. The yacht closed on the island chain, its skipper anxious to get inside the cut.

Already waves were leaping into the air, white and wild as they collided with the razor rocks of the shoreline. The 55-foot steel trawler could handle it, but it wouldn’t be fun. And the skipper knew that the seas were only going to get worse, the cuts more treacherous. Cave Cay Cut, north of Musha Cay, was doable, he thought, as long as he was in the right place. The Loran was encouraging, the readouts putting him where he thought he should be. He revved up for better control and plowed in.

White water ahead. It must be froth from the sea against current. It would open up. The Loran said so. The Loran was wrong.

On calm days at low tide you can walk across the rock ledge south of Musha Cay that separates it from Rudder Cut Cay. On this day at low tide, a mounting wave lifted the trawler up above the ledge, then slammed it down with the sickening, jarring crash of steel on rock. Within a few hours, the battering had turned the boat broadside to the seas, which were cascading through the large saloon windows.

Loran was not as accurate as GPS is today, especially in those days and that far off the U.S. coast. But even then, some invoked the concept of electronic navigation as an infallible deity.

Know what you want to do with it

Electronic navigation has done wonders for the safety and pleasure of boaters. However, it’s also done much to the detriment of safety because some rely on it to the exclusion of paper charts and traditional seamanship skills. My wife, Mel, and I both began boating in the early 1950s and have cruised between 3,000 and 5,000 miles a year for more than 20 years. Our boats over the years have ranged from 8-foot dinghies to our current 53-foot Gulfstar motorsailer, Chez Nous. We still navigate “the old way,” which has saved us on more than one occasion when electronics wouldn’t have. But we wouldn’t be out here today without electronic navigation equipment.

When people speak of “electronic navigation equipment” they may be referring to anything from a simple sounder to a suite of navigation information presented in a variety of ways. Here, I’m discussing those products beyond the depth finder end of the spectrum, although not to diminish the importance of that equipment.

Today on Chez Nous we use C-MAP NT+ cartography with a Furuno GPS/chart plotter, interfaced with a Simrad autopilot, and a Furuno radar. Our Raymarine ST60 series instruments “talk” to a multifunction display at the helm, which also serves as a GPS repeater. The system is 4-1/2 years old, with the only updates being in cartography. We’ve also used and appreciated both Raymarine and Garmin chart plotters, and we still use one of the old floating Magellan hand-held GPS receivers (as well as a newer hand-held).

I want to share with you some things we’ve observed that may help you navigate through the available options. My purpose isn’t to compare products and every bell and whistle. I’d like to but there isn’t space, and the needs of the boating community are just too varied. The field is full of new products, developments and technology. It sometimes feels like you need to consult a specialist just to keep up. This article may help, but I also recommend you talk with knowledgeable retailers and others about cartography and hardware before you buy. Get as many opinions as you can. Operate as many demo programs as practical. I’ll mention only a few products for illustrative purposes, not to imply that any one is best for you. Making that decision is the fun part, and no one can do that better than you for the kind of boating you do.

The range runs wide

We use our electronic navigation equipment for many purposes, from returning to underwater caves full of grouper and lobster to assisting with navigation issues directly affecting safety.

We use the technology for the mundane task of arriving at restricted bridges on the Intracoastal Waterway for their opening times, and for finding our way in fog and rain. We use it to pinpoint anchorages in the ocean wilderness of the Great Bahama Bank. Sometimes when we cross the Bank in settled weather we’ll head well off the established route and anchor late at night to sleep. Pockets of deep sand are small and few, but it’s important to find them for good holding. There are no landmarks — it’s like anchoring far out in the middle of the ocean except that it’s shallow. You can’t see the bottom unless the moon is full. Over the years, we’ve found a few spots, and with GPS aided by a chart plotter we can find them in the dark, literally in the middle of nowhere.

We also use the technology for leaving some anchorages along the ICW. When we feel our way into a winding creek for a perfect spot, we do so carefully. Even the latest charts don’t always accurately reflect locations of mud banks. In the morning when we leave, we trace back our track on the plotter while still watching the depth finder and our location relative to the shore.

We’ve also found that our electronic charts often include creeks and bays that aren’t on paper charts packaged in kits for specific regions. This has become more important for waterway travel in the last few years because of shoaling from lack of dredging. (In response to this need the Maptech ChartKit books we use now have much more coverage off the beaten track than in the past.) And we have the most fun when we can escape an inlet, get way out in the ocean, establish waypoints for a long trip, put ’er on “nav,” and just lay back and let ’er run. Sure, we keep watch and pay close attention to everything, but it’s so much nicer than driving from buoy to buoy inland.

Don’t just go out and buy

To get the greatest benefit for our bucks, we’ve found that we’ve had to invest in “learning time.” Sure it’s fun to go to our favorite marine retailer and push all the buttons on all the neat boxes to see what they do. But you’ll be much more likely to get what youreally need and want if you begin with some basics.

The technology involves three things: hardware (dedicated chart plotters or computers), the cartography, and the programming or software that enables the hardware to work with cartography and other data, such as the input from GPS, radar and depth finder. Programming often is a function of the hardware and/or cartography medium (i.e. cartridges or CDs). But even the boundaries of these basics are becoming blurred as a result of current developments.

The cartography

Raster charts: Raster-scanned electronic charts are graphic reproductions of paper charts, and their appearance is identical to or very similar to what you see on paper. Their format is called BSB, and they are used with computer navigation programs. You can view them on-screen and print them.

Some CDs containing charts also have programs that allow you to do things with the data. One helpful way to get into this technology is to buy a new Maptech ChartKit (a series of paper charts for a region, such as a part of the ICW). With the ChartKit you also get those same chart pages on a CD, along with simple programming to allow you to perform, on your PC, such functions as plotting courses with GPS waypoints and real-time positioning with compatible GPS units. Maptech also produces a more complex PC navigation program with many extra features to use with individual raster charts, such as those in its digital ChartKits. Maptech’s Marine Navigator adds 3D charts to the digital ChartKit package.

It’s been announced that soon we will be able to download raster charts from NOAA, but the files are large and printing them for maritime use will be difficult for a private user and beyond the capability of home printers. Also, you will still need programs, which will not be inexpensive. (Maptech has established a site for downloading these free charts at

Vector charts: Vector electronic charts are the type commonly used in dedicated chart plotters. Vector chart files are digital and, thus, require considerably less memory. They have the same look and information as paper and raster charts, but a large amount of additional information can be stored on the memory cartridges used in chart plotters (either Compact Flash or Multi-Media cards). This additional information is layered beneath the top level (the chart) so that it won’t get in the way of basic navigation. For example, with our C-MAP NT+ you can put the cursor on a marina icon or aid to navigation on the chart, push a button, and see a screen showing the additional information, such as characteristics of the aid or details about the marina (

With the increased memory capacity of newer cartridges, more information now can be stored on a single cartridge. C-MAP’s new Max charts have additional features such as flashing symbols for lighted aids to navigation, bird’s-eye approach perspectives, maps with detailed bottom contours, current and tidal information, streets and roads ashore, embedded photographs, and more. Navionics Platinum charts include 3D bathymetric charts, aerial photos, navigation photos of harbor entrances, and a Ports and Service Guide with icons for marinas, restaurants and other establishments on shore (

Navionics recently introduced Silver charts, with one lower priced card containing cartography (and many of the same features of more expensive cards) for all coastal waters of the contiguous 48 states, including the Great Lakes. A Canadian version also is available. Some Garmin chart plotters now come with built-in BlueChart cartography (also produced by Garmin) for all U.S. coastal waters, including Alaska and Hawaii (

Vector charts also are available on CD for PC navigation programs that support both types of cartography. Many of the popular PC programs also support the free NOAA ENC (electronic navigation chart) vector charts in the S-57 format. Some also support the IENCs (inland coverage of rivers and lakes) produced by the Army Corps of Engineers (check Some PC programs offer these ENCs as part of their software packages, adding enhancements such as streets, marinas and port information, and 3D to the basic charts. In order to provide complete U.S. coverage — NOAA hasn’t finished converting all charts to ENCs — some programs provide a combination of ENCs and raster charts.

The hardware

Chart plotters: Buying a chart plotter requires a lot of homework, cautions Justin Mann, department manager for electronic navigation at Bluewater Books and Charts in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The chart plotter you buy is only going to work with the cartridges for which it was designed, so you’re locked into that hardware/cartography combination.

To a large extent, the information and manner in which you can use it should drive your purchase decision, not the hardware. It’s important to be sure you like the features of the cartography product and programming that the plotter utilizes. Also remember that if the cartographer significantly upgrades its product, you may have to buy another chart plotter to utilize the new cartridges. Our 4-1/2-year-old chart plotter, for example, can’t use the new C-MAP Max cartridges (, although some units can be modified to accept them, and new plotters from several manufacturers are specifically designed for them.

However, interim updates usually can be burned to existing cartridges by authorized vendors that have the necessary equipment. (Mann says that both Bluewater and its sister store, Armchair Sailor in Newport, R.I. — — can update most C-MAP and Navionics cartridges on site.) When you’ve found an outlet that updates cartridges, ask specific questions regarding your cartography and hardware, and make your own decision as to whether your vendor can adequately advise you and fill your order.

Determine not only whether you like the cartography products compatible with the chart plotter you intend to buy, but also whether the cartography it can use is best for the area in which you’re going to be boating. In the United States, says Mann, this isn’t a problem, because all of the products are based on NOAA charts. But as you leave U.S. waters, there will be different basic charts available, some of which may be of a lower degree of accuracy.

Talking boxes: Before you buy a GPS/chart plotter, you should also determine whether it can interface with the rest of your electronics, such as your depth finder and radar, or if you must buy an entire new network to get these features. A few years ago this wasn’t an issue for most of us because we just bought a chart plotter and it did whatever it did. Now we have the option of displaying and overlaying many types of information from other sources — that is, if all of our equipment can talk to each other.

This may not be important if you just make an occasional run in a small boat to a favorite beach. But for many boaters, the ability to see navigation information, surrounding objects displayed by radar, bottom contours from bathymetric charts, and real-time depth from a depth finder — all on one screen or several displays side by side — can be very helpful. The size of the screen also is important, particularly if you have split-screen capability on a multifunction display. Electronics specialists at major marine retailers can be a good source for information of this nature.

Computers: A small but growing number of boaters use computers instead of, and sometimes in addition to, a dedicated GPS/chart plotter. With the appropriate hardware and connections, computers can interface with the GPS and other navigation equipment and do the same things as chart plotters. But they are more powerful and can do more with the data. They also have larger screens with better resolution. However, some feel that the programming is more difficult to learn than the intuitive pushbutton functions of dedicated plotters. Also, the screens can be difficult to see in sunlight, and the computers don’t survive well in smaller boats or boats with open helm stations. Chart plotters are more water resistant, less susceptible to shock, and have displays that are easier to view in daylight. Larger yachts often will use a computer below or in the pilothouse for more complex navigation functions, with a chart plotter on the flybridge.

In response to some of the “objections” to the computer hardware solution, Nobeltec, which has an impressive array of PC-based products (including its own Passport Charts), offers its wireless navigation display, a wireless remote touch-screen that can be used within 300 feet of a wireless-enabled PC. Nobeltec ( says the display can be viewed in sunlight and that you can utilize its programming on your computer from that screen. Raymarine also offers a daylight viewable waterproof 15-inch PC/video monitor, as well as its Raymarine Navigation System software (

Some PC navigation programs, like those from Nobeltec, MaxSea and The Capn (,, now support vector, raster and 3D bathymetric charts from various cartographers, but each is designed to work with a preferred cartography product. Other PC programs may work with only one type of cartography. Some PC programs — for example, Fugawi and Rose Point Navigation’s Coastal Explorer (, — offer complete NOAA ENCs as part of the package.

Study the program features carefully and try out a few. (Some manufacturers offer free demo downloads online, or visit a marine retailer.) Make sure your computer meets the system requirements for running the programs — most require Windows 2000 or XP — and find out what type of additional charts you will have to purchase when considering the cost. Many software packages offer add-on features — such as weather products, communications, and modules for radar, depth and fishfinding — increasing the cost and complexity of the system. These may be just what you want and need, or they may be overkill for your type of boating.

There are some interesting crossover products available, too. For example, C-MAP makes a PC Planner with software and USBCC reader for at-home PC viewing of its NT+ or Max cartridges. Routes can be planned with the charts, then uploaded from the PC to compatible GPS units. Garmin offers blank data cards with USB card programmer and downloadable CDs to program and update your own cards from your PC. And MaxSea has teamed with Furuno to produce MaxSea-NavNet, networking its PC program with Furuno instrumentation (

At the high end is Maptech’s i3 Touch Screen Command Technology (new Model 300), which it describes as a “multifunctional, hardware-software-chart data system.” This addresses the computer complexity issue by using a simple touch to the screen to add waypoints. It comes preloaded with complete NOAA charts and Maptech 3D contour charts, as well as navigation photos for the entire U.S. coast. Add-ons such as radar and communications are available.

Deciding which program — with which cartography and additional features — may seem daunting, but expert help is available from retailers and online, and the learning will be fun.

Moving in for the buy

A comparison of features for all the products available could fill a book and would be outdated by the time it was published. Suffice it to say that there’s a lot of neat stuff out there.

In my opinion, the decision as to what to buy should be driven by the cartography. I recommend looking first at the charts for your anticipated boating area, and the programming related to it, before deciding on the hardware. Consult with an establishment that specializes in cartography, rather than hardware, and ask for advice about what’s available and relevant to your needs. Try out some of the many systems on display at the boat shows, comparing different cartography products, then get the hardware that “plays” your choice and has the features you want.

Look for the best deals on electronics at the major marine retailers, and, before buying, ask whether there’s going to be a new product soon that will outdate that nice plotter sitting on the shelf. Expense — both plotters and charts — ranges from “gulp” to “You’ve gotta be kidding” (at least it does for me). But this is more than neat stuff; we’re talking vastly increased safety when the equipment is used properly. And the good news is that the initial purchase of cartography is lower now because with increased memory capacity comes increased area coverage. Further, if you buy cartridges from an authorized facility with the necessary equipment, they are burned on site so that you get the very latest versions.

Paper and seamanship

A downside to these exciting advances is the frightening tendency for some boaters to not carry paper charts aboard. This is a mistake. Hardware fails, software malfunctions, and satellites can be compromised. Indicative of the importance of paper is the fact that large commercial ships, which usually have an array of costly electronic equipment, are required to carry updated paper charts unless they meet some very stringent requirements, including at least two approved Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems, or ECDIS.

We use Maptech paper ChartKits and, in the Bahamas, the Explorer Chartbooks ( We’re excited about the new NOAA/OceanGrafix Print-on-Demand charts (available from Bluewater, some West Marine locations and other retailers) that are updated to the latest weekly Coast Guard Local Notices to Mariners. Cartographers such as Maptech offer handy waterproof charts and regional chart books for smaller boats, where spray and rain may be an issue. But with all the fancy paper and blinking screens, basic navigation skills — tried and true since people first started floating out from shore on logs — are still an indispensable part of safely going somewhere on the water. To complete the circle, while we’re talking of backups, consider also the hand-held color chart plotters now available.

I’ve only scratched the surface here. Hopefully these scratches will help you to get the most out of the technology to suit your personal preferences. It’s important to emphasize that these are a few representative products, not because I recommend any one over the other but to illustrate what’s out there. Before the year is over, products will have advanced even further. Maybe you’ll invite me aboard and show me the latest equipment you just bought.

A measure of progress

Back in the 1950s, long before all this modern navigation began, I had a crabbing business. I’d fire up the outboard on my wooden skiff, set crab pots, and sell the crabs to ladies around the neighborhood. I didn’t need all this fancy stuff and never imagined it would even exist.

I once pulled up a pot that was so full I could barely get it up to the gunwale. This has got to be a good place, I thought. I saw a huge pine tree ashore, behind a little patch of white sand at the edge of the marsh. I was on a line extended out from that tree and the sand. I looked upriver and down. I was on another line drawn from the bridge tender’s house upriver to the end of some pound nets downriver. Those lines intersected at my crab hole. The summer was good. I actually made some money for a change, working on the water.

With August came the storms. Local wisdom was that crabs don’t like to go into pots in bad weather, but they make up for lost time afterward. You take your traps in for bad weather so you won’t loose the floats. After a ferocious little storm had zeroed in from the tropics, I headed out to reset my traps, ready to be rich again. I went straight to my hot spot and eagerly looked ashore to get my first bearing. The pine tree was gone, blown down and out of sight in the woods. Crabbing has never been the same since.