We have written a lot about navigation systems. Here's what we use on Morgan's Cloud, and why.
Let's start with the basic parameters that drove our decision:
We firmly believe that to be safe, short-handed crews must be able to do their navigation in the cockpit without having to scamper down to a below-deck chart table every few minutes.
Large Screen Size
After experimenting, we established that our ability to keep in touch with where it’s at is dependent on viewing a certain minimum area around us on the chart without panning or zooming. Therefore, we decided we needed a good resolution screen with a minimum size of 15 inches (38 cm) measured diagonally.
Easy to Use
Quick and convenient operation is vital, since the more time we spend fiddling around with electronics, the less time we are looking up at the real world. Therefore, we wanted a full keyboard and mouse.
We slowly came to the same conclusion. We have both a PC running Maptech and a Mac running MacENC. Both are good for planning and checking a proposed route.
After a couple of years of running below we opted for the Standard Horizons 300 CPI plotter and hooked up a Miltech AIS in the cockpit.
I know it is a little low budget but, wow, what a difference.
With 3 separate electronic nav programs and back up paper charts, not to mention a couple of hand held GPS units, we feel we have enough stuff helping us.
However, it is easy to get complacent and getting back to the basics at least once a year helps.
How do you feel about integrated systems? And have you looked at digital radars?
I agree with J&C. I think both have their place. I like a chartplotter at the helmsman’s position, ready with radar, AIS, zoom, wind and COG info, etc. I also like redundancy so I carry a Garmin GPS 496 which works equally well in the car and airplane. (You purchase little cartridges that contain marine charts for your travel area.) This I leave under the dodger when I want to get out of the wind. Also this unit receives XMradio radar and weather when not too far offshore from US.
Then finally, the MacBook Pro runs MacEnc down below where it is dry and protected. Also US charts are free on NOAA’s site.
With these three there is plenty of redundancy and backup.
Soon I will integrate the AIS and radar signals so that they can be seen on all three stations.
One more advantage of different systems is that you are not so dependent on one manufacturer, their software updates and the charts the system works with. The downside is that depending on where you sail you might have to buy three sets of charts.
Life is tough but we do have options.
I’m ambivalent about too much integration. For example, we would always want to have a separate and independent radar, not just a scanner linked to the plotter. Also, we would never interface the plotter to the auto-pilot. More on why not in an upcoming post.
Sounds like you have things well covered. There are a lot of ways to get the job done in a safe and easy to use way.
I would want to add some asterisks to your “we firmly believe that to be safe, short-handed crews must be able to do all their navigation in the cockpit without having to scamper down to a below-deck chart table every few minutes.” We have sailed, so far safely, for 10 years full time, and, yes, “scampering” up and down to the laptop at the below decks nav station. When something tricky is anticipated, I take notes (course & bearing, light characteristics etc.) and/or annotated paper charts above with me. And/or Ginger mans the nav station and I work the boat. Very rarely have there been times when I wanted to see the electronic charts in the cockpit and I do not remember ever feeling that doing the navigation below decks was unsafe. In fact, I would worry about TMI (too much info & too much to play with). All I want is radar beyond the usual cockpit displays of depth, wind, speed etc. I also think that what you accomplished on MC is hard to duplicate on a smaller vessel.
It may be that your piloting areas are more filled with un-anticipated piloting challenges demanding quick responses. In any case, I write as I would not want your readers, especially those in smaller vessels, to think (my opinion) that safe piloting can’t be done below decks (electronic or paper) when that has been done for centuries and that to be safe all navigation must be done (or able to be done) in the cockpit.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
I certainly did not mean to imply that an experienced couple, like you two, can’t navigate safely below. In fact I myself did the same for 10 years in my last boat and in that case even the radar was below (hated that).
But, having navigated both ways, we find having all our navigation on deck much easier and I still think that the chances of becoming disoriented are less with on deck navigation, although I do agree with your point about the importance of not getting distracted by the gear.
One other thought, surely you and I are not really that different in the final analysis if you take an annotated chart on deck with you and have your radar screen on deck. After all, up until 2009 we had no plotter at all and so would have been identical.
Anyway, each to their own way of doing things. I think that the key point is to have thought all of this stuff out (as you clearly have) and have a system that works for each boat, rather than a specific “right” way.
Wow, was that weird. I had not clicked that the comments would be brought forward and I was reading my old comment, now way out of date, and had a distinctly out-of-body type experience there for a moment.
We now have a Furuno display in the cockpit connected to a laptop in the nav station running Time Zero. All work done on the laptop appears on the plotter and working on the laptop is far far easier and faster than working on the Furuno (although all functions can be done on the plotter which occasionally, we do).
This has worked well for us for 6-7 years. I considered a system more like yours, but our real estate under the dodger on a 40-foot boat is limited and we bring working lines back to the cockpit under the dodger in ways that further complicated the real estate challenge.
Having lived with only a laptop down below for 12+ years and now having a hybrid system of plotter and laptop, I concur with all your comments and conclusions.
As to plotter placement: it is under the dodger. For the short periods someone is ever at the helm (in and out of anchorages and harbors mostly), even the smaller Furuno plotter we have is easy to see. Tucked high under the dodger leaves it easily accessible, somewhat shaded and easy to see for the watch person who is, the vast majority of the time, tucked comfortably under the dodger as well.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
Sounds like a good set up. (As you know, I’m a huge Furuno Fan-Boy.) As you point out, moving navigation on deck is great, in fact I would go a step further and say it’s one of the best and easiest changes to make navigation safer that we can do, particularly for short handed crews.
I use paper charts, 2 small handheld GPS, a fishfinder (this year lead & line), a direction bearing compass, that’s it. I’m really comfortable with this for the NE Atlantic.
No chart plotter, radar AIS etc.
And yes the chart in use stays below.
In this age of burgeoning technology & tools, keeping it simple is always an option.
Absolutely, there is a lot to be said for simplicity.
Having said that, I would not cruise the NW side of the Atlantic without radar—just too much fog.
I’ll put my vote with the integrated plotter also displaying Radar and AIS up on deck. In fog or reduced visibility it has been great having all the info at our fingers up on deck. Especially this past year as we sailed to Norway, Scotland, Shetland and the English channel etc. I think AIS is increasingly important as am sure ships are using it more, and using their radar (and eyes) less.
When we had our 37 footer (3 X Transatlantic) we upgraded her to having an 8 inch plotter on deck and it was great. Now with our Southerly 49 we have the same arrangement. AIS and Radar overlaid on the plotter at the helm. Last fall crossing the channel from Falmouth to France the fog came down and we had much less stress than in the bad old days 23 years ago with an unreliable Loran set and no radar.
I think that your point about the benefits of deck based navigation (and particularly AIS) in fog, is a very good one. And that goes double in a place like the Channel where you are up to your ears in ships, the avoidance of which really puts a lot of strain on a short handed crew.
Is there a good reference book that tells how to use a PC, iPad and tablet computer for piloting and marine navigation?
I’m sorry, I don’t know of one. As an ex-mainframe-computer-technician, I tend to just fumble my way through this stuff. Anyone else have a recommendation for Dan?
Two sources: Practical Sailor has done a bunch of articles on such things and you can access their archives (subscription required); and Pambo has a torrent of information on marine electronics.
I know of no good book, although Francis Fustier ( https://blog.francis-fustier.fr/ ) is active in this domain. Perhaps this is something for you.
My current solution is using an iPad with the Weather4D app and the GeoGarage maps for Navigation and AIS. The NMEA and AIS data is distributed via a WLAN and NMEA over TCP to the iPad. I have under the dodger a mounting bracket for the iPad in a Waterproof case and a charging cable. That’s good enough for the situation when I want charts in the cockpit. This works on my aluminium boat very well.
Update: Sorry, I didn’t see the question is 5 years old.
I don’t know of any book available, either, and while no ex-mainframe technician (although I remember punchcards, VAX and Fortran!), there are few connectivity and “play nicely” computer issues I couldn’t eventually kludge together.
Let’s leave out the iPad for now, as I don’t really think much about wireless on a steel boat, nor do I think a tablet, an inherently “two-hands” device, would last long on a pitching deck. The major problem for someone who prefers to use a generalist Windows/Linux-based netbook or PC as a nav station is the connectivity between the sensors and the black-box interpreters in the network.
The situation is roughly analogous to the old 300-2400 baud dial-up modems of the 80s-90s: You are looking for a “handshake”: a sign that one device’s data stream is being received by the netbook and is arriving in a right-enough order for the nav program (like OpenCPN) to interpret it via a USB or Ethernet connection. This could, and usually does, in my experience, require old-school parameter setting not seen since the not-missed dying days of DOS 5.o and Windows 3.1.
As an aside I prefer netbooks for navigation because they are rugged due to being so tightly packed in their cases; their processing power is more than adequate (as is a 10 year old Compaq Armada PIII, a common “fleet” laptop you can buy for $50 each from wholesalers); they are small and light enough to fit inside foulies for transport in an open dinghy, and their power draw is very modest. Storage can be expanded with external solid-state drives (which are not really needed with 80 gigs aboard, typically), RAM can go to 4 gig or so, which I recommend, and if you dislike the small screen (which is equivalent or larger than many plotters), you can output to a flatscreen for detailed zooms. Lastly, buy five of the things at a discount (they are $300-$400 each), “ghost” their drives, and keep four secured in a dry spot with dessicant and wrapped in bubble wrap. That’s still cheaper than a new plotter, and far more flexible.
Back to connectivity: The standard NMEA 0183 and 2000 data streams from GPS, depth, AIS and radar tend to collide if not co-ordinated, and each may be happiest with its own speed configurations. Rather than go deep, I would suggest exploring via these Google search terms “NMEA 2000 backbone”, “Ethernet RADAR”, “Ethernet and USB and NMEA interface”, “PC navigation” and “picoITX fanless motherboard”. That last is a paperback or smaller (I’ve seen one in an old Gameboy case) motherboard that runs cool enough to just have heat sinks, not fans, which is better from a power, concealment and corrosion viewpoint.
Currently, I experiment with USB GPS “pucks” (about $50) plugged into an ASUS netbook running Windows 7 and OpenCPN. It works like a charm and the BSB vector charts from the U.S. mapping agency are free. Later, you may wish to use propriety charts, but to get your feet…and not the gear…wet, I would recommend this as a great place to start “plotterless plotting”.
The Panbo site and PS are good resources, but as this is essentially a very small market (computer-literate folk who understand plotters are both overpriced, way too proprietary and limited in function…and who cruise offshore), you’ll find more out on hobbyist web pages than elsewhere.
You’ll also learn about the magic of conformal spray, but that’s another topic entirely.
Hope this helps.
Thanks for the thoughts. Just one point. Most, if not all, low power netbooks are not capable of running the latest high end navigation software like Nobeltec or Maxsea (essentially the same software with different front end). In fact you need quite a bit of horse power for these packages and they run best with a separate graphics processor.
That’s likely true, John, but the latest netbooks aren’t running on the weak first-gen Atom processor anymore, either: Some of them are the equal of larger notebooks and I consider them suitable for everything save intensive graphics, which may be part of the Maxsea package (although electronic charts are not particularly graphics-intensive). I guess I meant the upper end of the 12-inch form factor, not the basic “Word and browsing” $200 10-incher you’d give to a student (or which I gave to my 11-year-old for middle school).
See here for specs: http://kafeier.hubpages.com/hub/Best-SellerRated-Netbook-Computers
I can’t imagine any plotter with more brains than 1.8 GHz and upgrading to 4 gigs of RAM, which I recommend (my year-old ASUS 1215N maxed out to 4 gigs RAM just flies…and the screen is big enough for plotting and then some). Those specs are equalling that of my Dell M6300 “workstation laptop” and are approaching the power of my dual Opteron graphics workstation, which is the size of a microwave, is just three years old and can do “light 3D animation”. I realize the graphics/GPU subsystems on netbooks are more modest than on lappies or workstations, but I haven’t found a compelling need to add more oomph in that department.
Of course, my assumptions are predicated on that the PC-based navigator will not necessarily desire the bells and whistles and “virtual reality” of, say, the Furuno NavNet setup, which makes a boat into a flight simulator of sorts, to my eye.
I did, however, reply with the sense not that the person asking the question was liable to go with a commercial package needed to run on a PC “front-end”, but with the more typical “open-source” nav program solutions (Active Captain, OpenCPN, even something like the fine Rose Point Navigation software.
Horses for courses, as they say. Whatever level of complexity one desires, the answer to the question “is PC navigation feasible aboard a passagemaker” is always “yes” and mostly “and cheaper, too”.
We are planning a 3-4 yr circumnavigation leaving next July and well on our way with our preps. However I’m struggling and a bit stumped with navigation software and ENCs and ask if you could advise me on this.
I have the new Raymarine E125 chart plotters for our cat. I have a Mac Pro computer that will act as a redundancy nav system as well as for route planning, weather routing, etc. I have not yet purchased any navigation software nor any ENCs.
Evaluating Navionics charts I discovered that I can purchase once the RtW charts (approx $1500) but can only use them at any one time ie on the chartplotter. I could not use them simultaneously (download) on my Mac for routing, etc. applications. If I wanted to do this then I’d have to purchase them twice…I have been told. That seems ridiculous.
I’m investigating if Garmin charts and philosophy are more relaxed than Navionics and if they will operate on the E125.
Am I missing something here? Could you pls offer a solution or advise for the above knowing I’d have the E125 and a Mac computer? This could apart from the Navionics. I just don’t want to have to purchase charts twice. But I need Round the World charts.
I started to answer this, but it got so long, I think I will make it a post, look for it in the next few weeks.
Navionics is owned by Garmin so I think they have you there, and we have a similar set-up (Mac user) with Raymarine E series plotter.
But I actually like having different charts, on different platforms from separate charting suppliers as some are better in certain geographies – the local agents tend to know which is best in their coverage area since they get the feedback. For instance CMAP charting (on the Raymarine) is superior in the Pacific Islands (outsell Navionics 10:1 according to the local agent) yet Navionics NZ / Australia charting work really well and is much better value than the CMAP equivalent for Raymarine plotters.
Another factor is whether you want to see the raster chart as well as the vector chart, which you get with CMAP, but not Navionics. This is very helpful in places like the Pacific Islands where there are likely to be base charting errors and things like lights and buoys are often moved by the locals to suit their own needs without telling anyone. Such marks also get swept away by storms and not replaced. Similarly, the locals may get an aid grant that needs spending by a certain date and so build a brand new beautiful lighthouse that is not charted anywhere – now that’s confusing! So having both the Vector and Raster charts on the same SD card helps.
Have you considered the option to use Navionics, iNavX or iSailor apps on a tablet (rather than the MAC) with a remote keyboard as your back-up? On these platforms the charts appear cheaper and the iPad can be taken into the cockpit when navigating a new tricky passage to have two completely separate verifications of position and the route. As long a you ensure the charting is from two different OEM suppliers you will then have a redundant platform and charting. We have used iSailor as our back-up and have found it quite good value on the iPad and quite simple to use.
Hi, After having read the rules on comment guidelines, which I agree with I have had difficulty in actually placing my comments as they are more questions. Anyway Merry Christmas, see following and I hope that I at least have found the correct spot to place it.
My first time on the forum, although I have been reading for quite a time gathering information. For your background I have made the decision to pick up roots, leave corporate live, buy a yacht and go sailing for the rest of my live. I have significant sailing experience having earned my living for the first 8 years of my professional life sailing yachts, racing, chartering and delivering all round the world. This was in the days when nobody even new what a GPS was and when even satellite phones were rare in the commercial shipping world.
So I have a lot of questions, regarding navigation instrumentation, networks power consumption etc. as I used to lug around a sextant and sight reduction tables or a Tamaya NC77 calculator. Instead of just asking broad questions I will provide my thoughts on these issue and would appreciate input from the forum on these thoughts.
Before I start on the details some general thinking from my experience:
– I require simple systems with redundancies
– I will have solar and wind generation, but no generator or hydrogeneration, although thinking of shaft generation
– I will have a hydrovane autopilot for the majority of the work but with an electronic back up to steer while under power.
– I am not particularly fond of proprietary technology, so tend to lean towards open source, interchangeability, NMEA2000 networks.
– I am happy to compromise, so I will get sailing instead of preparing the perfect yacht and never leaving the harbor.
– Cost is a factor
– I will be single handed
From a navigation perspective my thinking is:
– would love PC based navigation preferably on a 12V based system ( am I talking rubbish here?) There is a plotter on the yacht I am intending to purchase
o what system? Macsea, Fugawi for example
o Raster or Vector, I really have no preference here, only thing I am concerned about is getting charts in the same format for the whole world. (as an aside I sailed in the Maldive Islands in the late 70’s where the charts were from 1908 with latest revision from 1954. This is were I learned to mistrust everything navigational, ie there is no reef on the chart, therefore there is no reef???)
What is the most cost effective option here?
I also require to have tidal charts as part of the package
Ability to overlay gribfiles for weather, free if possible, what service and no I do not want to reformat, sort and transfer files once a day.
Routing ability depending on polars of yacht
SOMETHING OUT THERE THAT DOES NOT COST AN ARM AND TWO LEGS?
Sensors on the yacht:
AIS responder class B with silent mode my thinking is Seapilot WIFI –AIS CTRX Graphene +_
VHF with DSC preferable with the AIs using the same antenna as the VHF
Autopilot no wind input only GPS
Satellite phone for internet/data
This is one of the things I haven’t got my head around, what do I require to get weather information and internet, no voice calls required.
Iridium Go? What is the most cost effective solution to get access to the web and weather files?
Conscious that it is Christmas I will stop now and await some feedback.
Thanks in advance for your help.
Welcome here, and Merry Christmas.
It would be difficult for me to answer so many questions properly in one place, so I would recommend that you first read our navigation and weather online books. A lot of your questions are at least partially answered there, and in far more depth than I can do in a comment.
After that, if you have remaining questions, break them up into manageable chunks and post them to the chapter that comes close.
For example, post your question about 12 volt computers here and the one about weather to this chapter.
Re iPads and screen size. When considering equipment, perhaps one should have a look at the iPad Pro – both the 9.7 inch and 12.9 inch.
Good point, I too have wondered about the big pro since I strongly believe that screen size is vital to good navigation and the bigger the better.
I’m working through upgrades to our system on a 1985 41 ft cruiser. I have a couple of NEMA 0183 compatible units I would like to keep if I can, Furuno GPS GP30 and 1621 Mk II radar, that work just fine as stand-alone units. The nav station is in the aft cabin and so there is simple access to the deck under the hard dodger to hook up touch screen technology so single watch, we are a couple, can access and scroll through data on deck. I have a Panasonic Toughbook with Nobeltec TZ and I have a 5Kw genset onboard. I have a Furuno LP1300 Chartplotter that is now removed, and not intended to go back on board. So that’s the entry discussion. I don’t think the Toughbook is the right unit and I’m comfortable with installing a dedicated ruggedized mini-PC but I will keep the Toughbook as a working computer. I think ? a ruggedized marine mini-PC is a good direction go that for working with NEMA 0183 and I’m fine with the NEMA 0183 technology if I can have data interface between the nav station and deck. I think this will work with a mini-PC and couple of touch screens, Argonaut would work fine. I’ve been in conversation the past through days with Actisense who recommend the NDC-4-AIS (I am installing a Class B AIS). John, in your article above you state you use a USB to 4-Port RS-232 DB9 Serial Interface Adapter. How would you rate an NDC-4-AIS to that type of application in the application I have described? Is there anything you think I should do differently? What are the pitfalls?
SV Flying Spirit
The things that jump out at me:
Hope that helps.
Very good article. Can you let us know what model of external GPS you are using with your MacBook Air? Apologies if you already included this.
We are getting our GPS signal from our Vesper Watchman AIS via NMEA 0183. We also have a hand held GPS with an 0183 cable in case the Vesper dies as well as an old Northstar GPS that will output a position too.
About 8 years ago I bought Navsim’s ‘Sail Cruiser’. I run it on a PC with C-Maps. I I think you recommended it, and it has served me well. Navsim however, no longer support it. Is there a replacement you feel good about? It seems like the chart plotters are taking over, but like you I prefer the computer based approach.
Hum, I don’t think I recommended it since I can’t even remember “Sail Cruiser’ being a thing. But then again at my age…
Anyway, we have used Nobeltec for years and have found it a good and robust option. (They now call it “Time Zero”.) I have also heard good things about Coastal Explorer, although I have no personal experience with it.
John — I find one of the critical elements of choosing your navigation system to be choosing your preferred/needed electronic charts. This is critical when one cruises beyond the extents of the free NOAA charts. The options for charts can quickly become the determining factor in the long-term economics and value of a given navigation solution. Think this would be worth an article and discussion.
Hi Jon, John,
Absolutely agree with that and suggest to also include the costs of chart updates as this can alter the economics in a significant way in our experience.
We went the plotter route as we don’t have the room under our dodger for a computer screen and keyboard etc. and wanted an integrated, waterproof and crash proof POD at our exposed aft cockpit helm with a larger display for routing at the nav station. We find this works for us and have had no issues with any of the equipment 4 years on (we use Raymarine e-series) and based on the fact most electronics fail out of box or shortly after, we should get 7->10 years life. As such they have delivered value and performed to spec and we haven’t spent any more money except on charting. Our plotter originally came with a Navionics micro SD card covering the SW Pacific, Australia and NZ – cost about $250 USD bundled with our plotter. This source data is shared by the master Nav station plotter and the cockpit slave (which is by the helm) making purchase and updates easier and less expensive. At the time we didn’t purchase the updates for the charting as we always carry an up-to-date NZ almanac for tides and light changes (rocks don’t move very much in well charted areas we find).
But for the SW Pacific in 2017 we went to update our charts, and found our card was discontinued and no longer supported updates. The reason given was there was “too much new chart detail to fit on the one Micro SD card” – and with no upgrade plan on offer, we were forced into buying a new SD card (our plotter can have two simultaneously) and chose a SW Pacific CMAP card, as these were considered superior for the South Pacific (plus I was miffed with Navionics at the time).
Zoom forward to last week, I got an email newsletter from Navionics offering an amnesty programme on our original SD card with 50% off any new replacement. So yesterday we were able to buy a new MicroSD card for Australia and NZ (still a lot of charts for the price) with the latest charting updates and 12 months of free updates for about $125 USD. This brings down the price of our charting to reasonable levels (we think anyway). We have found Navionics works well around NZ and the small parts of Australia we have explored to date. CMAP was spot on in the SW Pacific Islands.
The last factor to consider perhaps is support. Unless you are a PC “expert”, not just the initial integration but also the support of both operating system and charting SW + HW in a mission critical set-up should be factored in. We have come across a few cruisers needing support for their computer and charting mid-cruise, especially after SW updates to their operating system or a relative borrowing the computer to send emails and somehow altering their settings. We have required no outside support for our two plotters, despite 3 updates to the base lighthouse plotter SW and several SW upgrades to the autopilot and radar. It all seems to have worked seamlessly so far – touch wood!
best regards, Rob
Yes, while beyond the scope of this article, chart selection is important. I will think on it.
Our current solution doesn’t fully meet all the above criteria (esp. screen size), is a bit simpler and cheaper, and does increase the need to think more carefully about paper charts as an adjunct (and we still really like using them in close to the hard bits around the edges of the ocean). We have two identical iPads running iNav in waterproof cases (all in sub $2,000 USD when we bought them). They are independent of all boat systems (no connection to autopilot, or even wifi NMEA data, etc. – KISS) and need only 12v power which is easy inside our hard dodger/doghouse but might not work for all. I doubt depending on the battery day to day wouldn’t leave one in a lurch at the worst possible moment. Bit of a learning curve to get fast at route planning in iNav on the iPad but it works just fine (definitely need an external keyboard for typing). I believe it would instantly be too complicated/cluttered/unreliable if we did not have Radar + AIS on a separate machine and screen. Tested and worked for 3 years all over the place… with some hassles but no failures. Will need to upgrade soon (they are 2013 & 2014 vintage), so long term value might not be as obviously cheaper (although iPads are pretty useful in other areas, can’t take the plotter to bed with you to watch a movie…) and TBD if the newer larger higher res iPads are actually an improvement (not sure about waterproof cases, battery, etc.)
Yes, there’s a lot to like about tablets, but generally I’m not a fan of them as a primary navigation solution, for the reasons you state and others: https://www.morganscloud.com/2017/01/22/10-tips-for-safe-navigation-with-phones-and-tablets/
I do like them as a backup though: https://www.morganscloud.com/2014/03/23/do-you-still-need-paper-charts-part-2/
I went for an iPad as backup to my 3 year old Raymarine plotter. Very quickly found Navionics on the iPad to be much more usable, I also have the Raymarine system on WiFi so access AIS and radar on the iPad. Now I have 3 iPads for navigation and the Raymarine chart plotter is back up!
Did you check out other tablets? I know Andy S at 59-North uses IPads as well. None of my devices are apple and I’d prefer to stick to an android tablet if possible. Did you do any comparisons or were you already an apple user and that was the obvious choice for you?
We use a chartplotter at the helm now, but am thinking about adding a tablet at the NAV station.
I assume this isn’t the place for discussing what’s best among options for navigation systems, but for the record, depending on which boat and which situation, I sometimes use a laptop with external screen, sometimes a plotter and mostly my iPad Pro 12,9 with Navionics. We have two of them with full size keyboards. I have an adjustable holder for it, inside and outside. The iPad is vastly faster, sharper and easier to use than the other options. The main trouble with the iPad is water. I have not found a suitable casing for the big ones. Thus we have two smaller second hand iPads with casings, running the same mapping software, which is for free on the same platform and user, as backups and when things get wet. Works like a charm. We also have an older standalone Raymarine radar that is inside, but can be used from the steering position.
If we decide to do some more challenging cruising, we’ll have to do some upgrades. Then we’ll get a better radar, an AIS transponder and perhaps look at some better waterproof screen. For running the latter, a laptop is an option. A micro desktop computer is also interesting, like the Intel NUC, Apple Mini and a host of others. They are much smaller, can be made more powerful, can be tucked out of harms way, in a waterproof housing, use even less power, are way more flexible in their options and can to some extent be updated when needed, rather than dumped. However, they’re not necessarily cheaper….
The last option I know of is far cheaper and uses far less power than a plotter or computer setup, and about the same as iPads: Rasberry Pi and other similar things. These are ridiculously cheap, can be adapted to virtually any thinkable function, use barely any power, can be made completely watertight, have a minuscule size, can be very powerful if designed correctly, but they are NOT plug and play, by any definition. This solution seems to be mainly for those that have computer tweaking as a hobby, so I don’t think it will be a very normal setup.
Still, there is a big community working with developing free open source software for this. Last year I saw that they have made a software for it that works as a “Pactor modem” for web connection over SSB radio. It seems to work significantly faster than the hardware modems, and it’s practically free…. They have also made software that makes the handheld VHF into a hand set for the SSB. And they have connected that to the phone system so it seems possible to make calls. They have navigation systems, AIS transponders, smart boat systems to remote monitor and control anything. Alarm and lock systems. You name it, they’ve made it. All sounds like fun, but anyone thinking of going that way needs to have a proper and durable interest in reading long forum threads, hanging out with nerds, not in person, of course, God forbid 🙂 , and fiddling with tech.
I am a fan of a smaller dedicated chart plotter on deck with something larger below for route planning which could be paper, computer or chartplotter. My preference is based on 2 things: turn on time and energy consumption. Chartplotters can often boot and have a gps fix in under 15s which is pretty remarkable and really helpful when everything goes wrong in the middle of the night with near zero visibility. We also spend a lot of time sailing without any electronic navigation aids turned on and only do it if entering a tricky unfamiliar place or every time we want to plot/record a position so being able to fire it up quickly is useful (whether it is appropriate to sail this way is another debate but we enjoy it and feel we can do it safely). While a bit of an extreme example, last fall I was the only person to witness a small powerboat capsize in the surf line on a rocky shore and was able to plot a position to give to the coast guard very quickly even though all electronics started off (breakers on though) and I was also navigating through fishing gear at the same time with the engine tach’ed out. As an aside, on my own boat I really prefer the pre all touch screen plotters as I could navigate the menus eyes off by counting button clicks but when I did deliveries and such, I preferred the touchscreen type as it takes more familiarity with the specific unit to be able to be eyes off.
As we discussed related to battery sizing, I am a big fan of energy conservation. Some of this is simply leaving the unit off but if the visibility is reduced or there is any real form of navigation to be done, that is not practical. The other part is energy consumption when on, our current plotter draws about 0.6A and if you go to a 9″, they are more like 1A. Pre-integrated AIS, I found a 5-7″ plotter to be plenty in the cockpit provided your face was close to the screen and you had planned on something larger but once you put AIS on the screen, 7-9″ is a better bet. Running continuously, this could represent a 25 Ah/day or greater reduction from a computer based system which is a big deal on a boat that has kept other loads low. Of course, I would love a 24″ screen that consumed almost no energy but with the exception of a few shipping lanes, think that I could actually navigate just as well without it while maintaining better situational awareness.
I have not looked at chart availability for a few years now so that could have an effect too on the plotter versus computer debate. Our current chartplotter in the cockpit is 7 years old and the only reason that I am toying with replacing it is screen size for AIS display but the current one would be moved to above our bunk for anchor watch to replace the very small black and white plotter there. When I used to spend a lot of time running boats other than our own, I was faced with the laptop versus plotter question and settled on a smaller plotter with a rail mount and 12V cigarette lighter plug but most of the other people I knew doing it went the laptop route. Finally, I just find it to be less bother to have a plotter and I see them as a tool only, I don’t actually enjoy playing with them, we have the boat to sail and go places not to play with computers.
I agree, there’s a lot to like about plotters, as I write in the above post. We went with a computer, but that certainly doesn’t mean I think that computers are better than plotters, just different.
On screen size, I’m thinking that the key to making a small one work safely for you is when you say “with something larger below for route planning which could be paper, computer or chartplotter”. What scares the hell out of me is when I see people blundering around with no route or even course and often using a small screen plotter, or worse, a phone.
I agree completely about not route planning on a screen that small. For that matter, I think that doing it on a 15″ screen might drive me crazy too. I have been spoiled where the boats I have worked on have generally had a nav area big enough for a full size chart and on computers at home and at my office, I run a combination of 24″ and 27″ monitors so I really don’t like ever trying to do anything more than email on something small.
I too was sceptical about route planning on a 15″ screen, but have found that with only a little practice it is easier than on a paper chart, at least with TimeZero. The secret is to use a two button mouse with scroll wheel (not a track pad) and that coupled with the instant pan and scroll of TimeZero makes it very fast and accurate. The other trick is to do the route in two passes, the first just the major turning points while zoomed out, and then zoom in and go back over the route inserting waypoints to get decent offings while checking that the original points are safely located. Takes more time to write than to do.
I have also tried this on a plotter, both touch and without, as well as an iPad. TZ with a mouse is several times faster.
I’m thinking I should make a short video of this next summer when back on the boat.
We have a (long in the tooth) Furuno radar/plotter below decks as well as a hand-me-down laptop running OpenCPN linked to GPS/AIS transceiver.
However, on deck we use a waterproof Sony tablet (also running OpenCPN). The tablet cost me less than £100 on eBay. I bought two – so I can still use one, whilst the other one charges.
It seems to meet our current needs.
As we will be venturing from Europe to the West Indies next year I would appreciate your thoughts.
I’m afraid I’m not a big fan of using tablets as primary navigation devices. Here’s why: https://www.morganscloud.com/2017/01/22/10-tips-for-safe-navigation-with-phones-and-tablets/
We run following navigation equipment:
A Furuno Plotter Nav3D in the cockpit.The Furuno plotter can run all kinds of formats. Raster, mapmedia, vector,C-map, Navionics, S-57. I do like the fact that it is built for for being used outside in a hostile environment. Frequently used on fishing boats. Also like the fact that Furuno and Maxsea Timezero share the same chart database.
I do agree that it is essential to have the navigation in the cockpit.
On longer offshore passages we only run the Furuno Plotter when radar is on. Do not feel there is a need sitting staring at a chart all day long.
If the radar is off and we are sailing offshore we use only a 5” B&G MFD for AIS tracking. Turning the Furuno off and only using the B&G saves us around 3 A/h.
Down below have we a laptop in a docking station that run Maxsea Timezero. It is an older Dell laptop but have no problem running the latest Maxsea Timezero software. This laptop is primarily used for charting software and Winlink. I´m a firm believer that a navigation computer should be just that.
Finally we have a IPAD Pro with several Apps. The one we use daily is Navionics.
So what do we actually use?
We plan on the IPAD Pro.
Then we navigate with the Furuno Nav3D plotter.
When approaching I normally double check with IPAD Pro as this database is always updated.
I love the fact that Navionics have integrated Active Captain. A great complement to cruising guides.
We also run Navionics on the Iphone. Great tool when trying to find the boat coming back with the dinghy after sunset. Learned that lesson after spending 20 minutes trying to locate the boat on a very dark night in Bequia.
The Timezero on the laptop we use less and less. Have not yet opened in the last 3 month cruising.
Sounds like a good system.
One thing that’s interesting, I have tried Navionics on an IPad and found it both awkward and cumbersome, compared to to TimeZero. Just shows that we are all different. Part of that difference might be that we have TimeZero connected and available both at the chart table and on deck (same computer). (Both stations have mice and full QWERTY keyboards.) So there is no need to transfer planned routes between machines or end up with the version control and modification inconsistencies implicit in using different units for planning and actual navigation.
The point being that how well a given piece of hardware or software works for each of us is more a function of how it is connected and used in our navigation flow than the features or function of said hardware or software. This is what makes the “which is best” debate futile.
Raymarine has a very workable solution that I have become extremely fond of.
On my last refit, I replaced my analog radar with the Raymarine HD High-Definition digital radar dome and purchased the C-127, with sonar multi-function, 12 in display. I replaced my analog displays with a single i70 multi-function instrument.
First of all, the HD digital radar dome is spectacular! And it uses far less amperage. The quality of the radar imaging and range are superb.
What appealed to me the most about the C-127 is that it has it’s own wireless network allowing it to be viewed and controlled by iPads or other tablets using Raymarine’s RayRemote app. This has major cost saving and functional benefits.
I have an iPad mini in a waterproof case mounted with a bracket on the top of the pulpit. It can be oriented for viewing from behind the wheel, and it can be flipped down and atomically reoriented for viewing from under the dodger.
The AIS data is overlaid on the chart plotting function in real time. The screen can be switched to Radar, Sonar, or instrument displays from the iPad as well as from the primary display down below. I does split screen functions so one can watch any combination of two screens at the same time.
The wireless connectivity adds some wonderful functionality. Several tablets can be connected simultaneously. One can take an iPad with them to any part of the boat. Or have multiple tablets or attachment points down below. Various types of tablet mounts are ubiquitous, so for example One could easily be mounted above your bunk.
Sonar hasn’t been discussed here but I have found it to be quite useful. The Sonar for me was not about fishing but about being to evaluate the bottom of an anchorage. It displays the contours of rocks and weeds very nicely when deciding where to drop anchor. I was able to replace the original thru hull speed and depth senders with a combination dept-speed transducer on port and a sonar (fish finder) transducer on starboard. No new thru hulls were required.
And, importantly, all of these functions can be viewed via a tablet on the pulpit or anywhere else on the boat. It’s a truly elegant solution.
As far as redundancy or back up is concerned, a laptop computer with charting software is still advised. The AIS displays in the cockpit separately on the i70 display even when the C-127 is off or perhaps nonfunctional. The AIS receiver is built into the VHF. I still have my much older, smaller Garmin GPS unit as a backup.
This system has been in place for 5 years now and the only problems have been with the transducers. I have had to replace the speed-depth transducer and mast head wind vane transducer one time each.
Other manufacturers may by now have similar wireless capability as well. It’s definitely a feature to be looking for.
Just a gentle reminder. This chapter is just one of a 21 chapters in our Online Book on marine electronics and navigation. My only purpose here was to discuss a trade-of decision we had made between plotters and computers and that said decision had worked out well for us.
My idea was not, and is not, to suggest our way is best, of to start a huge and wide ranging discussion of all things electronic navigation.
Given that, this might be a good time to remind everyone that this is not a forum and that we ask that comments stay on the topic of the post . See our comment guides lines:
So, if, for example, you want to discuss the merits of different types of radars, or tablets for navigation, please do so on the appropriate chapter. List here: https://www.morganscloud.com/category/navigation/book-navigation-electronics/
Have Navionics running on a life proof IPad and RM with screens at nav, companionway and helm. Also open cpn on a toughbook. That way can simultaneously look at different chart sources, multiple things (weather, position, AIS/radar, cruising guides etc.) also have every iPad/phone and the RM devices linked via WiFi so can access every screen on on a iPad anywhere.
Even in my berth below can see everything without getting up. Can run AP from any screen. Have truly independent redundancy. Put the iPads in the stove if we see lightening or hear thunder.
Happy camper. Don’t like tablets on deck. Hard to see with sun behind you. Touch screens sometimes don’t work. Don’t even like touchscreen plotters if no other way to input with a joystick or buttons.
Phyllis and John, thanks for such a great product.
I was attracted by my interest in switching from plotter to PC-based nav. My Garmins are getting clunky and I don’t want to punch in waypoints anymore, but I am having trouble finding a vendor who can help me set up a Dell (or Apple) box and integrate with autopilot, ect.
Do you know anyone good in this business? The marine products I’ve seen are nice but am choking on the like 8x cost of a box armored against hard radiation when I will install in a conditioned completely enclosed pilothouse.
Thanks for any help, Jef
Interesting plus and minus arguments. I’ve been watching friends build Raspberry Pi systems that run perfectly and others that have various Windows/Mac-OS solutions that also run just as they want.
Yet, I really insist on a plotter by the helm for one simple reason: my best friends and sudden idiots can’t accidentally break the system by exploring. Everyone of my friends are very proud of their horror stories of losing the charting capabilities just when it really counts. Every story reveals that either the system isn’t as stable as professed, or that someone “touched” something.
Assuming you cruise by yourselves and do not have friends that can’t resist that inquisitive urge, alternatives to chart plotters are fine. I personally haven’t limited my cruising companions to that subset.
We run TZ chartplotters and TZ on our laptops.
That’s a good point. That said we have had good reliability from MaxSea on Windows over some 10 years. Part of the secret, is, I think, not to run other stuff on the navigation computer.
Waterproof and shockproof cases for iPad Pro are available from Andres Industries. They also have a quick mounting system (two ball joints with 3 different lengths of link) which allows mounting under the sprayhood and at Chart table – or anywhere else for that matter. They also have a waterproof connector for the case, although I haven‘t tried this yet.
Good to hear. We strongly recommend both for tablet navigation: https://www.morganscloud.com/2017/01/22/10-tips-for-safe-navigation-with-phones-and-tablets/
I have a fully integrated system with redundancy built in. A dedicated small plotter (B&G Zeus2 7) at the helm, apple laptops (15 inch and 13 inch) with OpenCPN down under, two iPads and a few old iPhones. Networks: NMEA2000, NMEA0183 (legacy Raymarine stuff) and TCP/IP cabled and WiFi. All connected through a Shipmodul box that traffics every system to the other. As a consequence I have all data on every unit (MacBook, iPad, Zeus, iPhone). This provides me with different charts on different machines and every single machine capable of showing data (wind, depth, AIS et cetera).
It has redundancy. If one network dies the others will provide enough to continue. If one computer fails there are others. I have two depth sounders (0183 & 2000) and can switch from one to the other. I will have a new autopilot (B&G on NMEA2000) but wil leave the old one in (Raymarine on NMEA0183) just in case.
As for AIS, I have one AIS transmitter on NMEA2000 and NMEA0183 but if that dies then my VHF also receives AIS and puts it on NMEA0183, and therefore on the whole net. Redundancy.
I am in the process of replacing an old Raymarine Radar (with dedicated display) to a B&G unit that can display on the Zeus, but also on OpenCPN (and therefore the MacBooks).
So what can I now do?
– Plan on the MacBooks (I also have a 21,5 inch Apple in the salon for Netflix and planning trips with the Mss.)
– Have everything behind the helm with the Zeus
– Copy the Zeus screen to any iPad (B&G feature, works well)
– Use dedicated iPad software for routing
– Display wind, depth, log on multiple iPhones (I stuck a few inside on the interior)
– Have AIS and Radar on all of the above (be it through Zeus, Zeus to iPad or OpenCPN)
– And last but not least have a decent amount of redundancy.
Having said that, I would still need:
– a Faraday cage for a laptop and iPad
– a spare Shipmodul (essentials will still work if it dies though)
(Shipmodul connects NMEA2000, NMEA0183, Raymarine version of NMEA0183, wired TCP/IP and WIFI. Software in it allows you to decide what goes where. E.g. will the 0183 depth sounds be put on NMEA2000 or not. Pretty sophisticated)
ps. I am not just a electronic toy fan … anchor replacement coming, new headsail et cetera.
Sounds like a lot of different ways to get the job done, which is good. That said, sounds quite complicated. The balance is something we nerds (me included) always struggle with. The key thing I try to keep in mind is to not get my head too far into the toys when I should be looking at the real world. Again, something I struggle with.
I have a Microsoft surface pro 6 which is running windows 10 pro and I am using MaxSea on it.
I’m looking at tethering my android tablet (in a waterproof case) to it using the remote desktop control app, which uses the RDP (remote desktop protocol) and allows me to use the full power of the PC Via the tablet, as and when I need a plotter in the cockpit. I’ve given it a trial and I cannot register any lag in the system and the connection seems very strong and stable.
I also have back up charts and software installed on the tablet.
Any thoughts on this would be helpful.
I don’t have any personal experience with this idea, but it sure does sound like way less installation hassle and expense than a hard wired second screen in the cockpit as we have. That said, I would really think about and test what you will do if the link dies at a critical moment since it could take a while to get things sorted out and that could be distracting at just the wrong moment. I would consider either having paper charts ready to go or a second tablet also ready to go: https://www.morganscloud.com/2014/03/23/do-you-still-need-paper-charts-part-2/
Hello AAC Techies, Hi John,
Your input on the idea and questions below please.
When we sailed around the Atlantic 10 years ago, it was all paper charts, with a small laptop for gribs and some early OpenCPN (mainly out of curiosity). In our second year we got an iPad, and used it extensively for the rest of the journey. Since then, much work and virtually no sailing. But we are pretty soon getting a new boat, and the program is again long distance cruising. We are starting from scratch with navigation hardware and software.
Obviously, much has changed in ‘hard- and software’-land since 2010. Having looked into many options (difficult to keep your head from spinning), I am still not fond of a chartplotter. Expensive hardware, expensive charts.
Thus the choice began to narrow down to using a laptop or Mac Mini, at the chart table with OpenCPN. In addition, an iPad in the cockpit. At least that way I have some navigational capability in the cockpit.
The iPad however needs to use different type charts (i.e. iNavX, Navionics, …), since OpenCPN is – not yet – compatible with iOS. Thus, additional expense (although limited), and two different systems.
Now, since the Mac Mini can be linked to two monitors (unless I am wrong), how about running only OpenCPN from the Mac Mini using both a standard monitor at the chart table, and a waterproof screen in the cockpit? Does this seem a feasible setup? Any waterproof, Mac compatible screens on the market (Argonaut seems to be only Windows)? Or ways of sufficiently protecting a regular screen (we do have a fixed aluminum dodger, so there is some permanent protection)? What kind of cable do you run for the cockpit screen connection?
Remarks, suggestions? Any feedback is appreciated.
Please, just to be clear, I have been an Apple user since decades, and do not intend to get into Windows or other operating systems.
I would go with the the mini and an Argonaut. That’s what we have had for 10 years, except we use an Air, not mini, and it has been flawless and very functional. You might want to consider an Air at the chart table since then you won’t need a second screen there.
Although I have never had to use it, I would also have an iPad for instant backup: https://www.morganscloud.com/2014/03/23/do-you-still-need-paper-charts-part-2/
As to the cable, standard video cables work fine, unless the distance is very long. (Ours is about 20 feet and we have had no issues).
Also, screen output is pretty standard, so there is really no such thing as a windows only screen. That said you will need an adapter from the mac output port to the cable to the screen, but Apple sells those, as do others.
Thank you. Good news about the Argonaut screen.
As for the Air. I have one, but that is my daily computer. I like the idea of having a computer solely dedicated to the boat, but indeed can use the Air as a monitor for the Mini for work at the chart table. Obviating the need for a second screen there.
Fair winds, Philippe
We have a trip planned Australia-Patagonia-Antarctica Peninsula. Unfortunately, I don’t see any TimeZero charts for Patagonia or Antarctica Peninsula Do you have any suggestions on what can be used? I see Navionics covers Patagoina and iSailor covers the Antartcica Peninsula. We were hoping for one system to cover the entire trip
Much to my surprise, it does seem that they have a gap there. Sorry, I have not cruised that part of the world so I don’t have a suggestion for an alternative. If faced with this problem I would check the cruising guides to the area for recommendations. Guides are usually by far the best source for this kind of planning. For example, we have a long section on charts for Norway and Svalbard in our Norwegian Cruising Guide Vol1.
Anyone else have any first hand experience of charts in those areas?
You could look at CMAP charts. We use these for the SW Pacific and found them 100% reliable in areas of often dubious charting.
We also used iSailor on an iPad and found it accurate, but really annoying -> when you try to cross the 180 degrees E or W meridian your route takes you right around the world, not helpful going from NZ to Tonga for instance.
Navionics was very cost effective – NZ, Australia & SW Pacific charts packaged on one HD card, but not as accurate.
Our Raymarine chart plotter can take Navionics and CMAP charting, and having two card slots, we can soft select between the Navionics charts, and the CMAP Vector or Raster chart.
iSailor was our backup. If in doubt, I learned to trust CMAP, and this was the feedback we had received previously from the distributor in NZ.
No recent experience with Patagonia or Antartica, but if I was going I would use CMAP which gives you both vector and raster charts on the card. As an ex professional navigator, I appreciate being able to see the original chart detail using the raster chart. Very helpful in areas with no aids to navigation, original charting inaccuracies and what navigation marks there are, frequently changed by the locals or gone missing in storms.
I agree on C-Map and in fact that’s what we always used in the Arctic with Nobeltec (predecessor to TimeZero), but the problem for Allister is that as far as I know TimeZero is now a closed system that can’t use generic C-Map charts, so this needs to be driven by which software and hardware he wants to use too.
I also agree on the benefits of raster charts, particularly in remote places.
Having thought about this, although I’m a big fan of TimeZero you may want to take a look at Open CPN since it’s not a closed system and therefore has many chart options. See my answer to Rob below.