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What Voyage-Planning Software Can Do for You

Man With a Plan

Electronic voyage-planning software can mean fuel savings, safer cruising, and more fun—so why don’t you use it?

There are two categories of boaters, just as there are two categories of people in the world: those who plan, and those who don’t. You probably know immediately where you fall, and the vast majority of boaters would most likely say they’re in the latter category. Not only that, but those nonplanners will refer to boaters that are planners as “those people,” as in, I know there are those people who sit with their laptops and lay out all their waypoints, but I just like to grab the wheel, push the throttles down, and go.

No judgments here, for or against either side of the coin. But it’s worth asking who these planners are and what their methods get them. After all, we’d hate to think “those people” are getting more out of their boating experience than others.

Charles Cohen uses Navionics route-planning software to help calculate his fuel burn for each cruising leg.
Charles Cohen (inset) uses Navionics route-planning software (above) to help calculate his fuel burn for each cruising leg.

Planners use a variety of software applications, on personal computers, tablets, and even smartphones. Some of the programs can instantly upload a route or voyage plan to your chartplotter, but the key is that you get access to the route at a time when you’re not at your helm, without all the distractions there.

The advantage of examining a route closely before you actually start driving it makes a lot of sense. How many of us really look at our charts to the degree we should? Probably not enough of us when you consider this: Many of the charts in electronic devices are “vectorized,” meaning they’re optimized for the computer interface, but it’s a person somewhere along the way who sets those parameters. To put it another way, digital charts add another layer of possible human error into the equation. “I usually review my route in the program to make sure I’m not going over any obstacles,” says Tim Wenham, a Great Lakes cruiser who uses a variety of planning programs. “I zoom in and follow the path. I do it in the planning stage in the laptop. Then I normally would run it through C-MAP Planner, which uses the same chart that actually goes in the boat’s chartplotter. Because again, you’re dealing with humans, so there are always variations—potential variations—between different points.”

Raymarine brand ambassador Tom Petersen
Raymarine brand ambassador Tom Petersen

Giving yourself this advantage on a long-range cruise into unfamiliar waters makes sense. “When we do trips from Channel Islands Harbor to La Paz, Mexico, we are traveling over 1,000 miles,” says Capt. Tom Petersen, a Raymarine brand ambassador and cruiser who offers Valkyrie, a Sea Ray 55 Sundancer, for charter. “There are many, many hazards between these two locations, and few safe stopping points. The benefits of using the software are pretty self-evident.”

Indeed it was a hiccup—the exception that proved the rule—that confirmed the importance of planning to Petersen initially. “I have been on trips where I was given ‘safe’ waypoints to use, only to find that a number was transposed on one set of coordinates, which would have put us onto an island in Mexico,” he explained. “Not good, especially if cruising at night.”

Considering a cruise in unfamiliar territory, another safety aspect that planning can address is fuel burn. Long cruising legs take on a whole new meaning when the availability of reliable-quality fuel is in question.

“In the Navionics software and the apps, I can go to the settings screen and enter the gallons-per-hour figure and I can enter my average speed,” says Charles Cohen, a California cruiser. “So let’s say we’re going along British Columbia, maybe we’re going to be averaging 9.4 knots. Well we enter that in, and, say, 16 gallons per hour. So we know the speed, we know the fuel burn. The program gives our waypoints in a scrollable list. And in that list it shows my course and my fuel consumption.” Planning helps Cohen to head off any concerns about fuel level, because he can look ahead on the waypoint list, and, if weather or other unforeseen challenges should force a route change, he knows just what his fuel needs are.

“I’m going to go through 150 gallons to get to waypoint six and I’m going to need 300 gallons to get to waypoint 12,” he says. “And I can look on the chart to find a fuel stop on my route.”

But it goes beyond fuel. Many programs add in other aspects of the cruising life that may alter your routine. Smartphone- and tablet-based apps, such as those from Navionics, C-MAP, and others, offer data on shoreside amenities and resources as well as access to vector charts. Garmin BlueChart Mobile adds in data from ActiveCaptain, a web-based interactive cruising guide. 

Such apps can mitigate dependence on single electronic devices and create redundancy. Of course, we recommend every boater should always carry paper charts of the cruising area. But the familiarity created by using the software can offset an otherwise stressful situation when a failure occurs.

“We were on Kelefesia, the southernmost island of the Ha’api Group in Tonga,” Cohen explained. “As we rounded the reef and headed south—eight hours away was Tongatapu and our plane for departure—the primary onboard navigation computer died. And the other computer workstation had not been set up completely. So here we were headed south with no way to get there. Of course, using our compass and lat-long coordinates as we traveled would have worked. But, the iPhone came to the rescue. I had purchased an iPhone 4 a week before we left on the trip and had downloaded half a dozen apps to it including Navionics. And lo and behold it was the iPhone that got us from Kelefesia to Tongatapu.” According to Cohen, the Navionics eCharts he downloaded are all contained right on the phone, so there’s no Wi-Fi or cell tower needed, and the iPhone’s GPS works directly off the satellite.

But voyage planning isn’t just for when you’re headed to Mexico or island-hopping through Tonga. It also has a role in more mundane excursions.

“Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the eight Channel Islands [off Southern California], has a huge number of coves that you cannot see until you are right at their mouths,” Petersen says. “This would necessitate a very close cruise in unfamiliar waters that you may not know well. You have to be willing to almost put your boat and crew in jeopardy to find these places, if you did not know these coves existed.” Instead, Petersen explores the island from what he calls a “helicopter view” on the chart at home, finding the inlets and coves in the planning stages, saving fuel and time, and reducing his stress level.

Great Lakes boater Tim Wenham uses C-MAP software to chart his course in advance, using a waypoint just outside his marina as a jumping-off point for every cruise.
Great Lakes boater Tim Wenham (inset) uses C-MAP software (above) to chart his course in advance, using a waypoint just outside his marina as a jumping-off point for every cruise.

“The software allows me to zoom into areas to explore before arriving on site so that I can pick good locations,” he says, noting that the software connects wirelessly with his Raymarine e-Series to download the routes and waypoints to his helm display.

But why reserve the benefits of planning to exploring? The most routine part of your cruising is returning to your home port. Until it isn’t. Having that route plan built in advance—one that you know is dialed in to the degree you need in the worst conditions—makes sense.

“I would say, Okay here’s my dock, and I literally plan [a route] into the channel from my dock, out of the yacht club I’m in, to a point where I’m clear to exit Cleveland Harbor,” Wenham says. “Basically I’ve got about six points I use, and the sixth point is outside Cleveland Harbor. So if I get into inclement weather, I have something that is dead accurate to get me in and out of the harbor under any conditions.”

As any boater knows, electronics are not what gets you home safe—just as paper charts didn’t fill that role before the Digital Age. “Software is not the end-all,” Petersen says. “It is a tool that helps in planning a more enjoyable and safer passage.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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