Arctic Gear Test—Electronic Navigation

JHH5_102639Here is our report on how the electronic navigation gear on Morgan’s Cloud handled our 10,000-mile, eight-month Arctic voyage:

Morgan’s Cloud—Navigation System Philosophy

Before we dig into our electronics gear, a quick note. Despite having spent some 30 years in the computer industry, marine electronics are a long way down my priority and mind share scale. Way below the rig, engine, deck gear and anchors.

When we do think about electronics, Phyllis and I put reliability and a minimum ten year life span way ahead of the latest wiz-bang features. Heck, we only got off paper charts three years ago, and we still always have the relevant paper chart in the cockpit ready to go.

So if you are looking for information on the latest super-duper, Wi-Fi enabled, iPad controlled, integrated, NEMA 2000 capable system, you may want to head on over to see Ben at Panbo.

Having said that, we do have a system that works well and helps us make the right decisions in some pretty harsh conditions.


JHH5_102647Before we get into the gear itself you should know that we do all navigation and most communication on deck on Morgan’s Cloud. Over the years, we have moved almost all of the electronics into custom made pods under the dodger, as shown in the picture above.

We believe that this is the only way to go and simply can’t understand why sailboat builders insist on a chart table below and then mount much of the vital electronics there, and in so doing, require the navigator to behave like a demented gopher bouncing up and down through the hatch. Not only is this inconvenient in the places we sail, with a high proportion of fog and ice, it’s dangerous, particularly when short-handed, as we always are. (A good thing about plotters is that they can be easily mounted on deck, which is helping to alleviate this problem.)

Electronic Navigation Hardware

After much thought, we made the decision to install:

Before heading north, we did take the precaution of replacing the hard disk in the laptop with a solid state drive, thereby eliminating the one and only critical moving part in the system. We also bought and fully configured a back-up laptop.

The Good
  • This system worked well for three years with no failures.
  • Even with the backup computer and solid state drive, we ended up spending less than the price of a good plotter, when you take into account that we would need a laptop for email and weather anyway.
The Not So GoodAnd the boat work continued, and continued, and continued…
  • A good and seamanlike installation of a system like this with the screen, mouse, and keyboard on deck and the computer below is not trivial.
  • Ironically, since we have stopped for the winter, the Dell has been flaky in the last couple of weeks—looks like a serious hardware problem. Since laptops are now about half the price we paid for this one, we will probably junk it—after first taking out the solid state drive and installing it in the spare computer—and buy a new spare.
  • We only recommend this approach if you are comfortable with computers and software since a certain amount of messing around, upgrading, and trouble shooting is required to install a computer based system and keep it all working well. If the thought of that kind of thing makes you break out in hives, we would recommend a good quality self contained plotter instead.

Highly Recommended—but with the above caveat.

Electronic Navigation Software

We decided to go with Nobeltec Admiral after trying out the low cost Digiboat Software On Board and finding it a bit flaky and also difficult to use. (This may have changed in the last three years.)

Nobeltec Admiral is very high end and expensive at $1200, with many features aimed at superyachts that we don’t need. The only reason we bought it was that at the time it was owned by Jeppesen/C-MAP, who we partner with on our Norwegian Cruising Guide, and they cut us a very good and generous deal on the software and associated charts.

The Good
  • The current version (11.2) of Admiral is very stable.
  • The software has been stable since version 10.2.
  • It is very easy and elegant to use.
The Not So Good
  • Version 10.0, which we started with, was so flaky and bug ridden that it was down-right dangerous.
  • The software requires a copy protection dongle. Lose or break it, and you are down. And I’m guessing that Nobeltec would make you buy the software again if you lost it.
  • A year ago, two weeks after we paid Nobeltec (now partially owned by the same company as Maxsea) some $1000 to upgrade to version 11.00 and update our charts to the latest versions, they announced a “new product” that we could switch to for just another $700.00. Oh, and by the way, we would have to buy all new charts for full price too…from them. As I remember, Maxsea pulled a stunt like this some years ago too. That’s not nice, guys. We will use Admiral until Nobeltec stop supporting it, and then switch to a different company.

Not Recommended—due to corporate culture.

C-MAP Maxpro Electronic Charts

Maxpro is C-MAP’s high end offering.

The Good
  • Much better rendering than most recreational vector electronic charts—a near paper chart look and feel.
  • The purchase price includes a year of updates over the internet. This is a huge benefit, since, for the first time, it is practical for a recreational vessel to keep all of their charts fully corrected and up to date at all times. A task that used to be just about a full time job for a junior mate on a commercial vessel.
  • In the northern North Atlantic and the Arctic, C-MAP cartography is simply the gold standard; every commercial vessel I have talked to uses C-MAP. No other company has the accuracy and coverage they do.
  • C-MAP have done a truly incredible job of correcting the datums on the underlying cartography. In most cases, even in the more remote parts of Greenland, the datum was bang on, even in places where the same government paper chart was as much as half a mile off. This is not a trivial achievement and C-MAP deserves kudos.
The Not So Good
  • Much of the embedded harbour information is really pretty useless, although the pictures can sometimes be of benefit. I know that C-MAP are working hard to improve in this area.
  • MaxPro charts are more expensive than the lower end offerings from both C-MAP and competitors, a lot more expensive.
  • After the first year of free updates, you must pay an annual fee to keep the update service.

Highly Recommended—charts that are always up to date are worth paying for.

As always, if you have a question or a tip about navigation gear that has served you well, please leave a comment.

Further Reading

Arctic Voyage Gear Test—Engine

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John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 18 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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