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Strategies in electronic charting

Jan 1, 2003

In the vast and complex market of electronic charting gear, there is a frequent question voyagers ask: Should I get a plotter or a PC program, and exactly which one?

The right answer to the PC or plotter question is dependent on many factors, but often the correct choice is to have both. While this seems to run counter to maintaining budget efficiency and keeping this simple, there are some good reasons for this approach. Let's start with the example of a real-life system I helped put together for a friend I'll call J. Two years ago he was preparing to take his 40-foot sloop voyaging in the Canadian Maritimes and wanted to move up to a real-time, boat-on-digital-chart constant plotting solution.

J is not particularly adventurous with computers but does own a fast laptop. As his boat lacked a real navigation station, we rigged it to a secure (and vibration dampening) RAM-mounted tray, just out of the weather and next to a new Garmin 162 mapping Global Positioning System. The GPS is also installed on a flexible mount, and in such a fashion that it can be worked either with the laptop while standing below or swung out into the companionway and seen from the helm. The hardware setup is completed with an external antenna, power supplies and the simple, but all-important, data cable that marries the computer to the GPS.

We installed two charting software packages on the laptop, along with two flavors of electronic charts. The main program is ChartView 3.0, notable for its dependable display engine and ease of use. J chose SoftChart NOAA raster charts for their strong color palette and NDI Canadian charts because there is no choice of charts for Canadian waters. Garmin's MapSource software provides a way to load the company's cartography to the 162. Specifically, J bought modestly-priced U.S. Waterways and Lights and WorldMap CDs that provide fairly low-resolution coast outlines and most navigation aids, a level of mapping quite suitable to the plotter's 4.2-inch (diagonal) screen. All this, no doubt, sounds complicated, but the result is a smooth and powerful system.

Planning at home

J starts planning his voyages at home on the laptop, with cruising guides and large-area paper charts spread out around his den. The first summer, he printed out a lot of harbor charts and tight spots with his routes imposed but found the small 8.5- by 11-inch sheets fairly useless (a large-format printer helps, but printing your own charts will mainly remind you of the excellent technology behind real printed charts).

y´Once onboard, with the laptop plugged into the system, J puts the Garmin in its data communication mode, uploads the routes he's built, and off he goes. During harbor entrances and other tricky areas, J cons from the companionway with the aid of live charting on the laptop, but most of the time it's shut down and lastic-bagged for moisture protection, and the Garmin is doing all the work, perhaps with a paper chart on deck for further reference.

Thus, J does all his planning and close-in work with the speed of a computer and full raster data, but he is not reliant upon, or distracted by, the laptop — and doesn't have to waste any power on it — while on passage. If the laptop goes down, he has his routes and rudimentary charts on the little plotter. In the less likely event that the plotter goes down, he has his laptop and old GPS to drive it. In either case, he is quickly back in business with routes intact.

There are more benefits from this computer/plotter relationship. When and if J's various component makers issue software updates, he or his faithful service person (me) can easily download the upgrade and install it to the laptop or, via the laptop, to the plotter. In fact, thanks to Garmin, we were able to turn the Garmin 162 into a Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) accurate unit last summer in mere minutes.

The system's portability and flexibility were highlighted when J added a powerboat to his fleet. He equipped her with another 162, along with cables and fiddles for the laptop, but with an interior steering station and more or less limitless power underway, J's navigation routine changed. He still uploads his routes, and they are still valuable as backup, but the laptop is always on, and the side-by-side GPS serves as a useful, zoomed-out second map display.

At any rate, J is very happy with his system. Aside from the laptop, his costs have been reasonable, especially in proportion to the increased confidence he's felt voyaging in unfamiliar waters (and Bay of Fundy fog) with a small crew. And, if you ever saw him trying to operate a word processor or Web browser, you'd have to conclude that his complex-sounding combination of products is actually pretty easy to use.

Powerful combination

I'm not suggesting that you run out and duplicate J's specific setup, but rather that you develop a strategy for electronic charting that includes similar tactics, somehow combining the flexibility and power of the PC platform with the reliability and simplicity of the plotter, and hopefully getting some redundancy in the bargain. The good sense of this proposition is validated by the ever-increasing number of products that support it.

y´For instance, today one can put together a PC/plotter system with just Garmin parts. Last year, Garmin introduced both large-size fixed plotters and full-detail BlueCharts, which are actually a variant of the Transas vector database that's also behind Nobeltec's Passport charts. BlueCharts come on memory cards or CD. With the latest version of MapSource, a user can use the CD version to build routes on a PC and upload them along with the charts to certain Garmin plotters. Since MapSource will also do live charting when hooked up to the GPS, you would only need to add a backup GPS to have a completely redundant system. Sometime this year Garmin intends to expand flexibility further through their plotter line with a memory card reader (and writer).

C-Map already introduced a similar product to work with their chart cards. PC-Planner consists of rudimentary charting software, a blank user card and a USB dual card reader. Pop the blank in one slot, a regular C-Map card in the other, and you're viewing your charts on the full glory of a PC monitor and making plans in the comfort of your nav station or home. It's easy to write routes, waypoints and marks to the user card, and many plotters are already able to read them (others may require upgrading or a direct wire connection). Since the planner software also supports constant plotting, you can have a redundant system except for the chart card itself, which is solid state and highly reliable.

Neither Garmin's nor C-Map's software is anywhere near as powerful as a full-bore charting program, but they do provide fast route-making and (with computer aboard) a plotter backup, and thus seem an attractive add-on for those who wish to focus their attention and budget toward the plotter. It's worth noting that this winter the price of vector chart cards went down substantially, while their coverage area went up substantially.

Also worth noting are the PC-like features coming to plotters. C-Map's new NT+ chart-data format supports numerous presentation improvements, such as user-selectable color schemes and fonts and more customizable layering. Use of the added options is neatly simplified with display control modes, like "full," "simple" and "fishing." NT+ also includes Guardian Technology, whereby the plotter minds your heading line for charted shoals, a completely unique feature for plotters, and one whose alarm could save a distracted navigator's behind. Navionics, too, is working with their various partner plotter manufacturers in anticipation of introducing their own new and improved data format later this year and is also planning a PC relationship beyond the one already supported in Lowrance plotters.

Meanwhile, Raymarine's new RayTech 4.0 attempts to push the PC/plotter relationship to an entirely new place. Using the latest version of the company's High Speed Bus (HSB2), an onboard computer can almost seamlessly integrate with a Raymarine plotter and any other electronics on the bus. No need to upload routes from PC to plotter; they're available as soon as you make them and/or hook up to HSB2. You can even control your Raymarine radar and overlay its imagery on your PC charts. The only thing RayTech won't read is the plotter's chart image, but that feature is planned for the next edition. Furuno does not yet have a competing product to go with their NavNet interface, but may soon enable one (or more) by opening the NavNet code to existing PC charting developers (the NavNet Ethernet hardware connection is already open).

Hand-held charts

There are also new redundancy strategies available to those who are committed to an entirely PC navigation system. One interesting technique is Maptech's Pocket Navigator combined with a personal digital assistant (PDA), like the Compaq iPaq, and a PDA GPS. Picture an iPaq sitting in its USB cradle next to your high-power onboard PC system, ready to serve — with some of J's route and chart uploading discipline — as a backup plotter if needed (or nifty shore-side exploration gizmo when wanted). Nobeltec is talking about similar PDA software that would work efficiently with their Passport charts. Nobeltec's new Admiral version already enables greater redundancy and more in big boat PC systems by accepting GPS data over an Ethernet connection and integrating with nView's boat network sensors and software.

Will there ever be one machine that really does it all? The Sea Ray Navigator just introduced at the Miami boat show may suggest such a possibility. It's a dedicated PC that strives to attain plotter toughness and simplicity while offering all of Maptech's marine cartography — raster charts, photo maps, 3-D contours … the works. The Windows-based system is locked up tight for reliability, and the interface is thoroughly designed for the touch screen. Aside from being a remarkably able plotter, the Navigator bristles with connectivity. Radar overlay, digital engine diagnostics and wireless services are all in the plans. The fact that this machine was designed by a production boat builder, and is only available on its boats, is its most revolutionary aspect.

But a prudent navigator will no doubt carry a back up even if his do-everything charting system comes built right into his boat. And I don't just mean an extra GPS. I recently read some bulletin board chatter amongst several long-haul cruisers who prided themselves on carrying three GPS, including one in a "faraday cage" for protection from lightning. I wondered if they were prepared for GPS itself failing.

I read Tim Queeney's Marine Technology Notes on GPS vulnerability in a recent Ocean Navigator ("GPS vulnerability and the future of loran," Issue 118, Nov./Dec. 2001), and even read the Volpe Report Queeney refers to. I'm now a believer. Even before Sept. 11, marine and aviation authorities were realizing that dependence on GPS as a single-source navigation system is a bad idea. Eventually, we'll probably see GPS integrated with an upgraded loran system, and should never be out there without some "electronicless" plan. In short, while I advocate the "belt and suspenders" strategies to electronic charting I've detailed here, I favor an approach to the whole of boat navigation that includes belt, suspenders, backup, pencil and paper.

Contributing Editor Ben Ellison is a writer, editor and experienced delivery skipper who lives in Camden, Maine.