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Planning Trips using Digital Charts

Just a few short years ago I would have had to drag out paper charts in order to plan a kayak trip. As a retired merchant marine officer I have a collection of charts gleaned from those we would have normally discarded from our ship’s navigation library. However the charts still had value for planning purposes and certainly for kayaking. So I brought them home. But planning meant that I had to locate the roll of charts for an area, unroll them, pull out the appropriate charts, lay them all out on the floor and take notes and make drawings on scratch paper and generally make a nuisance of myself. My wife, for some reason, objected to not being able to walk, say, from the living room into the kitchen.

Those days are gone (well, mostly) forever. Now I sit on the sofa with my laptop and charting software and several books of charts (labeled, for some reason, “not to be used for navigation”; what else would they be used for?) and only occasionally resort to full-sized charts. Long winter evenings of dreaming about summer adventures are easier than ever before. If you already own a computer (and how else would you be reading this?) and live or plan to paddle in the USA you have most of the cost covered already. All you need are a few software tools.

Best of all,  these tools for doing are free! (At least for USA waters.) And for only a few bucks more you can get a GPS receiver/antenna that will plug into your USB port and convert your computer (and charts) to a navigation system.

For planning purposes I use Chart Navigator which comes in two versions; a “pro” version (costs money but allows input from a USB gps receiver and includes US charts) and a “light” version which is a free download. Chart Navigator Light comes with a “demo” chart but you can download virtually all US charts for free from NOAA. Or you can buy CD charts from Mapttech and just install them. Either way, the result is a very useful utility that lets you plan trips, create waypoints, research potential camp sites, and just generally pass your winter evenings.

The link to download Chart Navigator Light is: http://www.maptech.com/support/doc.cfm?docid=123&CFID=14692966&CFTOKEN=34482209 .

Downloading charts from NOAA isn’t difficult but it can be somewhat confusing. This is because many charts are available in both BSB format and in Vector format. Charts for use with Chart Navigator Light are BSB (or “raster”) so these are what you will look for on the NOAA site: http://www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/staff/charts.htm#RNC .

You will see a user agreement and at the bottom you can click the link to proceed with chart selection and downloads. You can select charts for download in two ways: by clicking on a graphical map or by chart number. I have found that selecting by chart numbers is easier; the chart names are also included to make this easier. But this method can be confusing for someone unfamiliar with the area they are planning to paddle. I would suggest getting a few of the charts that cover a larger geographical area and then deciding from that which charts to download.

The downloads themselves are packed into a .zip file which you will need to unzip and install onto your computer. If you are using Chart Navigator Light this would be in the folder created for charts when CNL was installed: C:\ChartKit\BSBChart so this is where you want to eventually place your downloaded NOAA charts. Since the charts are in .zip (archived or compressed format) you will need to “unzip” them for use. Windows now compes with a utility for this but if you don’t have it… or don’t like it… there are other solutions. I like “Filzip” which is a free – and very useful – unzipping utility that handles a plethora of archived file types (including the .gz format used on Unix and Linux machiens).

If you have a boat with a protected navigation area (like my infamous “muthah ship”) you can use these charts for automated GPS navigation using an external GPS receiver (with USB output) and a laptop or notebook computer using Microsoft XP (or maybe Vista, for all I know). There is even a free utility (SeaClear) that presents navigational information – including boat position, tracks, trips, and speed – right on the screen of your computer. You will probably have to copy your charts into another (different) folder so that this utility can access them. SeaClear looks for its charts in C:\Program Files\SeaClear\Charts. Now you will have continual GPS graphical tracking of your boat. Make sure you mount your notebook so that it will be secure in rough conditions and use a small inverter to convert your boat’s 12 volts dc to the 120 volts ac that your notebook wants.

There are USB GPS receiver/antennas available on the Internet. I’ve been using the Transsystem IGPS-M-Pro unit which works well with CNL. A driver for Chart Naviagator Light which also makes the USB GPS M-Pro unit work with SeaClear is available for a free download from http://maptech.mytopo.com/support/doc.cfm?docid=596&plid=30 . Maptech also sells the M-Pro unit but it’s also available (possibly with driver software) from others.

Get SeaClear from http://www.sping.com/seaclear/ and all you need to add is the GPS receiver/antennna to have an onboard navigation system for your mothership that can be used as a planning system for your kayaking adventures. I actually went out and purchased a Acer Aspire One notebook with Windows XP just for use as a navigation and trip planning console. This little unit, along with all the free software, combines a computer that can be used for email and web surfing (with built in wireless) with a GPS navigational and planning computer and all available charts for the USA waters. All for about $400 if you shop carefully.

What? You don’t paddle in US waters??? Hmm… well there are some options for you, too, depending upon where you live and where you paddle. The options, however, may not be free; or even cheap. In Canada, for instance, you can purchase BSB raster charts from Digital Oceans (http://www.digitalocean.ca). Australian and New Zealand waters charts are sold in raster form by MapTrax (http://www.maptrax.com.au/c/150050/1/maritime-charts.html)

. Search for “digital marine charts” in your area for more information. 

Have fun,
Craig Jungers
Moses Lake, WA

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