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Can I replace my paper charts?

Ask the Experts- Cruising Helmsman

(c) 2005 David Kerr

Dave Kerr is a regular contributor to Cruising Helmsman. He spent over 30 years in the Computer and Electronics Industries before retirement and more regular cruising.

Q "I use computers at work and home but am not a computer expert. I would like to know the cheapest and simplest computer system to enable me to give up paper charts?"

A It would be very risky indeed to rely solely on a computer and give away paper charts entirely. There is huge complexity in the electronics and software and they require power to operate. We have also found occasional errors unique to a particular  electronic chart.

Paper Charts
So, resign yourself to carrying at least basic paper charts that will be sufficient should something go wrong with your electronic system.

What sort of computer?

You have a choice of laptop or desktop style computer. If you have a large boat, a desktop computer can be obtained cheaply (under $1,000 new) and integrated into the boat. A couple of years ago, there was a CH article about integrating a desktop computer into a Nav station. Unfortunately I unable to find it. Perhaps the author will read this and remind us of the article.

We opted for a laptop and it's served us well for over four years. This was described in my article "The Cruising Computer" in February 2002.

Marine computers.
Computers and their peripheral devices can be obtained in ruggedised and waterproof forms, however they are expensive and you did ask for "cheapest"!

Second hand is okay
There is a good market in second hand laptop machines and these range from $500 to $900 with up to 12 months warranty. This will get you a model suitable for running a charting program plus other software. I would look for something over 700MHz speed, with 128Mb of memory (or more) and CDROM, floppy disk, RS232 interface and more than 2Gbyte disk drive. It's nice to have USB ports and other "stuff" but by no means essential. Make sure you like the size, clarity and resolution of the screen as screens vary a lot. In our case, we have a CD/DVD drive so we can also watch DVDs. The operating system could be either Windows XP or Windows Me (Me is cheaper but less reliable).

Keep the water out!
I recommend the investment in a waterproof case (perhaps a second hand Pelican case that has been retired from carrying medical or photographic equipment). The case is to keep out the humidity (particularly in the tropics) as well as water. It is especially useful when transporting your laptop on and off the boat. Some Silica Gel (which needs regular heating in an oven) is a cheap investment to keep the inside of the case nice and dry.

A plastic sleeve to cover the keyboard and provide some protection from dripping hands is another very cheap investment.

Charting Software
There are basically two types of electronic chart. There are raster charts which are effectively identical to paper charts, with some nice user-friendly additions. Then there are vector charts where the information is stored very differently inside the computer. C-Map has a large market share with its vector charts of the same name.

Have a look at the CH article "Electronic Charts- friend or foe?" from August 2003. Denis Glennon chose one particular (raster) package but lists nine others along with web addresses where you can download them for trial.

The cost of your electronic charts will likely be many times the cost of the related equipment and software. Do your homework carefully before deciding on the software you will purchase and price/availability of charts. Don't forget that you will also be purchasing some paper charts as well.

Some chart providers are beginning to implement rental programmes where you specify a chart area plus a start/stop time for your licence. This can save you a heap of money if you are planning on a long cruise. You can add rental charts with an "unlock key" via email/phone/fax while at sea (if the provider has a way to charge your credit card).

Another cost saving option is to "trade in" a set of electronic charts on a different area. Friends on a recent circumnavigation of Australia traded in the charts to the supplier from the previous section of coast for each new section. This was far cheaper than purchasing all the charts.
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