My head hurts! For this article I installed more than a dozen PC navigation programs on two computers. Oh yes, there were crashes, some even violent; heck, I probably qualify for some obscure Windows hall of fame. But I did manage to run each Electronic Charting System (ECS) through some drills—installing various types of electronic charts, hooking up a simulated GPS and sometimes other sensors, exploring new harbors and building routes to them, and ultimately pretending that I was underway with each program as my principal nav tool. In fact, over the years, I have been underway with most of these programs. But still—when faced with summarizing them or, worse, trying to steer you among them—I don’t know what to say!
Truly, the range both in what an ECS can do for you, and what you might want to do with it, is huge. That’s partially just the nature of PC software. There really is a guy named Olle who’s been developing an ECS since 1995, part-time I presume, and simply giving it away on the Internet. His freeware SeaClear II is not the greatest, and forget about customer support, but it does work, and in fact volunteers have translated its interface and manual into some seven languages.
By contrast Nobeltec, a subsidiary of Boeing, is a seriously ambitious enterprise offering a whole range of charting software, worldwide cartographic data, and much of the specialized hardware needed for a complete PC-centered helm, even on a large yacht. It not only has customer support, but an extensive dealer/installer network. And note that both Furuno and Raymarine have charting software meant to integrate neatly with their hardware networks, and Northstar’s new 8000i displays are dedicated computers.
Somewhere along this range there may be an ECS for you, but I don’t know which one. My research taught me mostly that research is good. Installing a dozen programs may be masochistic, but downloading and trying a few demos is fairly easy and very educational. The following general comments, annotated ECS screen shots, and personal opinions are meant to help you get started on your own research.
A big attraction of PC charting has always been the ability to view paper-chart-like rasters, officially known as Raster Navigation Charts or RNCs, which are large files not easily managed by dedicated electronics like plotters. Their appeal increased considerably last fall when NOAA made all U.S. RNCs freely available on the Web. While downloading them is a somewhat painful process, various repackagers (see “Sources,” this story) will sell you a DVD with all 1,000-plus charts on it for about $35, and some ECS packages like Fugawi ENC include such a disc at no extra charge.
Not only is it now dirt cheap to have a full set of RNCs (at least in our country), but NOAA is also giving away its new ENC vector charts, which so far duplicate about 60 percent of the U.S. paper/RNC portfolio. Vector charts, of course, are useful because their underlying data can be manipulated and queried. If you like course-up display, for instance, all the text labels and soundings can be turned right-side up. Or an ECS like Chart Navigator Pro can use ENC soundings to, say, check that a route you lay out does not lead through overly shallow water.
I was surprised, though, to see that the developers are still learning how to display ENCs well (the charts are “official,” but with that comes a thicket of display regulations, some of which are inexplicable). At the moment the best vector charts seem to be commercial. Nobeltec’s Passport charts, long in development for PCs, are particularly good-looking and data-rich, and several charting programs can now use the latest C-Map or Navionics plotter cartography. (There’s a nice po- tential redundancy there if you read the charts from a card that can also fit in an onboard plotter.)
But since no chart seems perfect, I take a more-the-merrier approach and have also become fond of photo maps and panoromics for further reality checking. The situation gets more complicated when cruising abroad, as no foreign charts are free and coverage quality is much more variable. You may want to use different primary chart types in different regions, even scan your own. The spec table on page 114 attempts to list all the chart types supported by each ECS.
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