Many features we love about our plotters are mostly in the data, not the device.
Anyone can make a mistake. I made one long ago when I wrote that I couldn’t see the point of electronic charting. I dismissed chartplotters as small, monochromatic, inaccurate, and expensive, and compared them (unfavorably) with 18th-century paper charts.
Back then (20 years ago!) all those things were true. My mistake was failing to recognize those primitive plotters as the first baby steps on the way to what may be the greatest revolution in navigation since the invention of charts themselves. Today a traditional chart table is a rare sight, and all but a few diehards navigate almost entirely on screen. After all, big ships do it—why shouldn’t we?
Three major players dominate the market: Navionics and C-Map (originally one company until the two founders parted ways in 1985) and Garmin. Until recently each sold its charts on its own proprietary “cards,” so it was obvious that you couldn’t fit a Navionics card into a C-Map plotter, or vice versa. Now most plotters accept SD cards like those used in phones and cameras, but there are still vital differences in the software required to read the various formats and very few “dual-fuel” plotters that read more than one kind.
To the user, the differences between the formats may seem subtle, but they could be enough to influence your choice of plotter—and therefore a whole electronics system—so it pays to research the charts before committing to any particular brand of hardware.
If you’re looking for ease of use, Garmin’s BlueChart G2 is the second generation of the company’s own format. It comes preloaded on many of the company’s current chartplotters but is also available on SD cards and Garmin’s proprietary G-Cards to work with their older plotters. The cartography comes from official sources (such as NOAA) but is “Garminized” to make it easy to use, particularly by those unfamiliar with paper charts. Even so, BlueChart G2 retains all the essential features, including coastlines, contours, hazards, buoys, and lighthouses, and adds a few extras, including tide and current data and bottom-contour shading that can be set up to suit your definitions of “deep” and “shallow” rather than those of some far-off cartographer.
BlueChart G2 Vision is the turbocharged version, with the extras we expect in premium-grade cartography—overlaid satellite photography, aerial photographs, high-resolution “fishing” charts, and 3-D graphics of the landscape above and below water—and an exciting auto-routing feature. Just like Garmin’s automotive navigators, if you tell it where you want to go, it will suggest a safe route to get there.
For planning routes, check out C-Map’s offerings. The company’s most basic cartography is called Max, but it still supports the earlier NT+ format on which Max is based. Onto the NT+’s basic 2-D charting, Max adds port facilities, aerial photographs, tidal stream, and current data as well as “animated” navaids that flash just like the buoys and lighthouses they represent. Max’s special selling points are a look-ahead function that can trigger an alarm if you are heading toward a charted hazard and a “route check” function that highlights any leg of a planned route that passes too close to a hazard.
C-Map also offers 4D, its latest generation technology, with the almost-obligatory 3-D charting plus satellite-photo overlay of land areas and high-definition fishing charts. Max’s route-check function has evolved into auto routing, but one notable feature is the inclusion of raster charts that can be compared alongside the vector chart.
The “fourth dimension” implicit in the name is time—the charts can grow with your cruising goals: Buy a 4D card for the price of a Max card, but with the 4D add-ons “locked away.” Later, you can buy an unlock code to release the increased 4D functionality.
Looking to have the latest data on your charts? Navionics seems to be leading the way when it comes to updates, with a policy known as “freshest data” that can offer updates every week. Its offerings start with Gold—with tide and current data and port-services information.
Navionics’ flagship range is Platinum Plus. The big difference between Gold and Platinum Plus is that Gold covers the entire United States in a single SD or CF card, but Platinum Plus coverage fills 20 of them. That extra capacity stores panoramic photos, satellite overlays, pilot guides, and high-resolution fishing charts—plus the video-game-like ability to present the chart as a 3-D graphic.
Navionics also lets users add local knowledge, thanks to an exciting smartphone/tablet app that lets users contribute user-generated content, basically adding a layer of crowd-sourced data to charts. The plan is eventually to check out the user additions and add them to the cartographic record.
Pricing comparisons are nearly impossible since so much depends on individual needs. For instance, Navionics Platinum Plus of the lower 48 fills seven cards at $299 each, while $199 buys Platinum Plus coverage of a few hundred miles of coastline—or Gold of the whole country.
This is a great time to review your boating style and the cartography it requires. You may well discover that it’s wise to change your entire system based on some of these exciting new products.
This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.