- Nav Software -
Navigation software is a question which often
comes up and one which can be a little intimidating to those not
comfortable with computers... Let try to sort it out and make it
easy for all! This Boatips is not meant to be an extensive review
of what's out there today, if you want something comprehensive there
are a number of sites for that... this is what works for me, nothing
First, I like simple and cheap solutions... I
strongly believe that you dont' need to spend hundreds of dollars
on expensive software and some of the free, or nearly free, solutions
will work just as well for most users. Personally, I have logged
thousands of miles using free, or nearly, free software and while
i wouldn't suggest diching your chart plotter for computer based
navigation, i find it to be a great back up.
The way we navigate has changed drastically over
the past few years with the integration of numerous type of devices
and technology to allow users to access information they could only
dream of just a few years ago. While traditional cruising guides
are still useful to get the big picture and general information
on an area, they are quickly outdated are hard to rely on. Over
the past couple of years, I find myself relying on Active
Captain for everything from Marina phone numbers to fuel
prices and local knowledge on inlets or ICW shallow spots.
Active Captain started as an online only, interactive
cruising guide using a Google Earth interface to display marina,
anchorages, and local knowledge, data is provided and updated by
users. Recently (2010/2011) Active Captain data has been integrated
in a number of programs for a variety of platform (Windows, Mac
and portable device incl. I-things) so that it can be accessed without
having a live internet connection.
Let's look at a few simple an inexpensive solutions
to make planning and navigating not just easier but also to provide
back up to marine electronics, as well as portable solutions to
use in your tender.
Just about any computer will do, desktop or laptop,
and you can easily use whatever notebook you currently own. The
biggest issue with using a computer for navigation is that they
can be hard to read if in daylight when running from an open flybridge.
If your boat has a lower helm / pilothouse, or an enclosed flybridge/skylounge
any plain notebook will work just fine. At an open helm, you probably
will need something more expensive with a screen designed to be
used outside and ideally splash proof.
GPS receivers have become really inexpensive and
depending on your computer you can use either a USB or Bluetooth
GPS. There are few compatibility issues although if you are using
a 64bit computer, make sure your GPS has 64bit drivers.Currently,
I'm using a BT368i from Gsat which works really well. It's a bluetooth
model which runs either on its own battery (8 to 10 hrs) or on an
AC charger. It was easy to set up using standard Windows Bluetooth
wizzard. Basically the only thing you need to know, whether using
a BT or USB GPS is which COM port the device is using. with a BT
GPS, this is found by opening the Bluetooth properties windows and
looking up the COM port.
US NOAA electronicf charts are free... dont' you
like free? Currently the direct download page can be found HERE
and you can download all charts or just per region or per state.
If the NOAA site navigations changes, it's home page is http://www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov.
In case you get lost along the way, the type of
charts you want to download are called Raster or RNC charts and
come in a .BSB file type. These charts looks exactly like traditional
paper charts unlike the S57 Vector charts.
And for those who boat on the river system, you
can download free charts from the US Army Corp of Engineer right
here. These charts are in ENC format only.
Charts come in compressed ZIP files which most
computers nowadays are able to unpack and decompress. The important
thing is to remember where you save the chart files, typically in
your document folder (../documents/charts). Since the chart files
can be used by different programs it makes sense to store them in
an easy to find location instead of buried in a program folder.
As mentioned earlier, I don't really see the point
of using expensive commercial software since in most cases you really
dont' need all the bell and whistles they may provide. What I want
is something that will show me where I am on the chart, allow me
to set up simple routes, and show me past tracks. Over the years,
I have used three free or nearly free programs: SeaClearII, OpenCpn
SeaClearII is ok, it was the only free program
available a few years ago and worked fine. It is available online
. It hasn't been updated in a few years and some features are a
is a free opensource program which is being updated regularly with
new features.. It is very well written and stably and a great option.
I still have it on my computers although these days I find myself
using PolarNavy. Polar Navy is $49 (website shows a $29.99 special
as of May 2011) and does everything OpenCPN does but also offers
OpenCPN can be downloaded from http://www.opencpn.org/
and is free. It is easy to install and the instructions provided
on the website are well written. Even with limited computer abilities
you should be able to get going quickly. Basically, after downloading
and installing OpenCPN, you just need to configure where your charts
are located as well as which COM port you GPS is using. Overall
OpenCPN is a good program offering all you need for basic navigation
functions incl. waypoints, routes, tracks, tides, etc... Chart selection
is fairly easy, you can either select the chart you want to use
from icons shown at the bottom of the screen or you can enable chart
quilting in the options to make selection automatic based on scrolling
almost as easy to setup, except that it comes in two programs: the
viewer and the actual GPS program. However, don't let it discourage
you as the installation process is just as easy. PolarView can be
tried free for 30 days and PolarCom is free. Like OpenCPN configuration
is limited to telling the program where your charts are located
and which COM port is used by your GPS.
One the best features of PolarNavy is it's chart
quilting function. You dont' need to manually select charts from
a list, whenever you scroll around, zoom in and zoom out PolarNavy
will automatically display the charts available for that location
and that zoom level. Much easier to navigate and plan trips... Note
that in some cases, when charts uses the same scale you may need
to manually disable one to access the other at equal scale. This
can be the case on the ICW but turning off individual chart is easy
(just click on the chart, open the chart option window and disable
the one you don't need),
PolarNavy does everything that OpenCPN does although
one thing may not be as obvious: there is no quick measure tool
when you want to quickly measure a distance but PolarNavy quick
route tools is actually more advanced. just Shift Click on the chart
to put two (or more) quick point and distances are right there.
When you're done, just clear the Quick Route... neat.
Whether used underway or for planning purposes,
having Active Captain markers on the charts provides information
that other traditional sources (like cruising guides) cannot provide.
Because the Active Captain database is updated by its thousands
of users it is almost always up to date whether you're looking for
marina rates and phone numbers, fuel prices or the latest on ICW
shoaling. Having the data stored locally on your computer means
you don't need to have internet access underway to be able to access
the information, you just need to update the data whenever you have
a connection, as simple as a couple of clicks in PolarNavy. As a
long time user of Active Captain, I can't emphasize enough how useful
it has become. In planning mode, you can review your route, click
on the yellow danger markers to see where you may need some tide
and with one more click check on when high tide will be! Underway,
you can review local knowledge markers (inlet, shoaling, etc...)
in case you route or schedule has changed or needs to change.
PolarNavy tide and current function are also very
intuitive; clicking on a tide or current station pops a semi transparent
lavel which show current tide level as well as next slack and next
high/low. another click gives you the full tide (or current) chart
over a customizable time frame. Nicely done.
There are a number of navigation applications
out there whether for Iphone, Droid, Windows Phone or Blackberry
and this Boatips page isnt' about a comprehensive review of mobile
apps so i will only mention my two favorite I-thingy apps because
of their Active Captain support.
Chart n Tides
...uses vector charts, which personally i dont'
find as convenient or as detailed as raster charts (which look just
like paper charts). On the plus side, it offfers full Active Captain
support including the ability to update markers and post reviews
making it very convenient to share data with others. Obviously,
while you dont' need data access to view information (it is stored
in your phone) you need data access to update data.
As its name implies, Charts n Tides displays tides
and currents, and does it well; you can find tide stations nearest
to your location as well as closest to chart location. Great for
planning your timing thru some of the ICW shallow spots!
Chart n Tides cost $24.99 per region (East Coast,
Gulf Coast, West Coast or Great Lakes)
This newly released Iphone app works pretty well
and also includes Active Captain support, although at this time
you can't submit updates to Active Captain. One the plus side, it
uses raster charts, which i personally prefer as they are more detailed.
Interface is intuitive and updates, charts downloads
are easy. Unlike other raster chart apps, chart selection (quilting)
is automatic so you dont' have to manually select charts.
Right now, eSeaChart doens't show past tracks/breadcrumbs
although that may come in future releases...
eSeaChart cost $7.99 and will download up to date
NOA charts for any region at no extra cost...