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- 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 more!

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cruising guides are still useful to get the big picture and general information on an area, they are quickly outdated are hard to rely on.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 and PolarNavy

SeaClearII is ok, it was the only free program available a few years ago and worked fine. It is available online at http://www.sping.com/seaclear/ . It hasn't been updated in a few years and some features are a little crude.

OpenCPN 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 Active Captain support. .

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 and zooming.


PolarNavy (http://www.polarnavy.com)is 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.


Mobile devices:

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...