Chart Plotters – the Ultimate Solution?

This winter, I have had the pleasure of ‘crewing’ on the boats of a number of friends who were making their way North. It has been a privilege to sail with them, to see how others sail, trim and navigate. One insight was the wide range of equipment and approaches to navigation among my friends.

It prompted me to reflect on the rapid evolution of navigation instruments on our boats, from handheld GPS and PC based chart displays to dedicated chart plotters, smart phones and iPads.

When I started doing coastal passages on our first boat, it was a matter of purely visual navigation (I never mastered the skill of using a sextant). That was among the reasons why we didn’t venture far from our home port. The nineties saw the rise of the handheld GPS, which gave us accurate positions to plot on traditional charts and the confidence to do longer passages.

GPS units soon gained plotting and charting capabilities. On our boat, we started using software at the chart table, using a laptop which was connected to our handheld GPS. Last year, before our cruise to the Whitsundays, we installed an 8 inch colour chart plotter near the steering station and thought that was the “ultimate solution”. But is it?

In recent times, we have seen the release of a multitude of low cost charting “apps” for the iPhone and now the iPad. Taking advantage of their built-in GPS, it turns them into quite competent chart plotters. But to be frank, I’ve been a sceptic. The lack of weather proofing and, in the case of the iPad, poor daylight screen brightness limits all-round use in navigation. I much prefer my permanently installed chart plotter at the wheel. I can read it in sunlight, it keeps working when rain or salt water intervenes. It connects to the auto pilot.

Navionics iPhone AppBut hold on… It’s not so long ago that I sailed with nothing but charts and a simple hand held GPS. My iPhone or iPad does much more than just plot my position, it gives me access to the latest weather, currents and other useful information such as marina websites and . Some charting “apps” even include other relevant information, such as magazine articles and the ability to annotate a chart (so called UGC, User Generated Content). What is more, they’re economical, nay CHEAP, typically $19.95 for a charting app for a phone you already own! And you can’t make phone calls or send emails with a dedicated chart plotter, can you?

So what is the answer? Well, it depends… I still like my dedicated chart plotter. It always keeps me company at the wheel. “She Who Must Be Obeyed” never uses it to email the kids. I can read its display in the midday sun as well as properly dimmed at night. It does not mind getting wet and I can’t accidentally drop it at a crucial moment. You might even say “my life depends on it”.

On the other hand, I always have my iPhone at hand. It is my trusty companion. I use it on our own boat or when sailing with a friend, where I might be unfamiliar with its on-board system. It is much more than just a GPS, I wouldn’t be without it. But rely on it as the sole method of navigation? No, not for us. In the future? Maybe. We will see marine quality, Internet connected chart plotters with iPhone/iPad-like capabilities, but it’s hard to see them for the price of a phone or mass-market tablet like the iPad.

For the time being, the ultimate solution for me is to have a standalone chart plotter AND an iPhone /iPad on board.

Marius Coomans

2 thoughts on “Chart Plotters – the Ultimate Solution?”

  1. Marius
    I believe Raymarine has just launched at the Sydney Boat Show their E7 “chartplotter” with wi-fi and bluetooth that can also sync chart display on iPad and iPhone, and can also be linked to on board TV to be displayed on much bigger screen.
    I am seriously thinking of updating to that.
    John Chong
    Wayward Wind

  2. Yes, the e7 is a nice looking unit, and it proves that even the chart plotter manufacturers realise that a plotter by itself does not provide all the answers. The e7 provides explicit connectivity to an iPad, that seems a good way to go!

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