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Dr. ITs Tech Solutions with Moving Away From Paper Charts

Dear Dr. IT,

OK I give up! I am a purist sailing with paper charts; this is how I learned and what I know, and what I want to know. Two years ago I purchased my first GPS, a simple hand held unit, this was a major step but complicated my life greatly. More and more it seems I can hardly find paper charts in stores, or not the ones I want, without ordering and waiting. Besides the GPS, my only other electronics on board is a small laptop. Without spending a bunch of money what are my options for SIMPLE electronic charting. Remember I am not electronic literate, and am on a very tight budget, free would be good.

– From Lester Taupin S/V Southern Cross (via email)

Lester, the world of digital charting is an ever expanding and ever changing technology field that many large companies are reaping profits from. In one way or another all of their programs repackage chart data that is generally available in the public domain or was paid for by tax-payers ages ago. This simple fact has always made me a skeptic of paying big dollars for a PC based charting program or chart plotter.

Knowing you are not an electronics wizard, and want to keep things simple and cheap, drives me to a couple of solutions that meet your criteria. Both are easy to setup and can be implemented for free or nearly free since you already have a GPS. Second, knowing you already own a laptop and are on a budget I will stick with PC based solutions that will not require you purchase or install more electronics on your boat.

Before we get into the solutions for charting, let’s take a quick look at the type of charts you want to be using electronically. In basic terms you have two choices ENC’s or RNC’s. Knowing you are a paper chart user and a fan of paper charts, I think you will select RNC’s.

RNC stands for Raster Navigation Charts, you can think of these as paper charts remade (scanned) to appear on your computer screen as it does in your hands, yes the chart appears nearly exactly as it does in paper.

ENC stands for Electronic Navigation Chart. With this type of chart only ‘data’ is stored on the computer that describes the chart, the chart on the screen is rendered real time by the computer using the data in the system for the chart area. These charts do not look or appear like the traditional charts you are using but offer many benefits in actual use.

The first solution I think you would like is an application called openCPN, or Open Captain. This is an open source software project released under the GPL structure, it is free to download, install, and use. According to the developers, the goal of the software is to create a concise chart plotter and navigational software for use underway or as a planning tool. What I really appreciate about the project is the fact that the software developers are active sailors who know the real world problems users will face with the software.

This project is very active at the moment; the newest release of openCPN was published during June 2010 with development ongoing. I have used the software with raster charts and was happy with the performance especially knowing the price. The project can be found online at opencpn.org – install the program and give it a test drive; at free the price is right. An alternative project can be found by Googling ‘SeaClear gps software’. This is also free but the project seems to be falling behind the openCPN standard.

After installing your program of choice you are going to need charts. There are plenty of resources for free charts around the internet, but pay attention to the age of the charts you download for use. The NOAA offers a large selection of both RNC and ENC charts at www.charts.noaa.gov, these charts can be downloaded for free but coverage is limited to US waters and selected other areas including parts of the South Pacific and the Caribbean.

Lester, this will have you up and running quickly and cheaply. If you need more help drop me an email at the address below.

GOT PROBLEMS? – send your questions to dnorlund@dustinnorlund.com

Dustin Norlund has lived aboard his Hylas 49 sailing extensively in the Caribbean and Central America. His professional career started in mechanical engineering and airline operations. Dustin is now the owner of Latitude 18 Marine Electric based in St. Maarten. Info: www.lat18marine.com or email Dustin: dnorlund@dustinnorlund.com

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