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Building your own electronic chartplotter

Like many boat owners, the money is not unlimited. A large amount of money was borrowed to buy the thing, and then a large amount of money is paid every month to keep the thing! So what is wrong with paper charts? Nothing really. Every yacht travelling any appreciable distance should have a full set of charts and know how to use them.

However there is something reassuring about having instant access to your position, and understand what dangers (if any) you face. So it was that we started investigating electronic charts.

The electronic chart plotter can best be described as a type of navigation computer allowing you to perform route planning and navigation functions.

A fully functional chart plotter is made up of four essential elements:

1) A built-in or external position fixing system - Decca, Loran or more likely GPS. 2) Electronic maps stored on some form of memory device 3) A device to display the electronic map and to show the boat’s dynamic position on it. 4) A keyboard, sometimes combined with a special trackball or trackpad to control the display.

Having read about all this (see rather than buy a single purpose chartplotter, from any of the big names like Garmin, Navionics, or Transas we decided to build our own.

It was remarkably simple. First step was to find the computer. Fortunately we were able to find an old Dell X200 at very little cost. The X200, at 2.9-pounds, balances the processing power and lightness with lots of features. The Latitude X200 is 0.8 inches thick, and has a 12.1-inch XGA TFT display with a maximum resolution of 1024 by 768 pixels. The display and input devices are well designed. The screen is a little small, a small ultra-light trade-off, but itís bright and crisp. The touchpad is smooth and two mouse buttons underneath. State of the art at the time, it has been rapidly ovetaken by other laptops. But it is easily powerful enought to cope with simple charting software.

Next thing was the GPS bit. We went for the BU-353 GPS Receiver. With a non-slip on the bottom and the compact design, the BU-353 is completely self-contained and waterproof. Incorporating the latest SiRF Star III GPS chipset and an active patch antenna it gives you a high degree of GPS accuracy. Combining both design and technology into an iF product design award 2006 winning GPS receiver the Globalsat BU-353 integrates the latest SiRFStarIII chipset into a GPS mouse.

With some trepidation it was bought on e-Bay, and lo and behold - it worked! We got a GPS feed.

The final bit was the charts. Because cash was tight, and this was an experiment, we went for the basic Admiralty RYA Chart Plotter which is a combined chart and software package designed as a basic introduction to electronic navigation. Developed with the beginner in mind, it is the result of the RYA's many years of experience in teaching navigation. It is supplied as a series of 11 UK Chart Packs, each of which includes the basic navigation software.

Each Chart Pack provides coverage of a specific sailing area in the UK from Newcastle around the south coast to the Clyde. You can buy any number of Chart Packs to extend your coverage. The simple navigation software provides only the few tools vital for electronic navigation, such as waypoint and route entry and connection to GPS for position-plotting.

The charts contained in the Chart Packs are Admiralty ARCS charts, locked to the Admiralty RYA Chart Plotter. This means that they cannot be used independently within other chart systems, such as Navmaster Offshore.

Other features include: easy waypoint entry; easy route creation; avoidance zones; electronic bearing and distance lines; directional planning arrows and large buttons. The program is designed to run on the following Microsoft Windows operating systems: NT version 4, Service Pack 4, 2000 and XP with a minimum function PC spec of 200Mhz processor, 64Mb Free RAM, CD ROM, 300Mb Free Disk Space, 16 bit Colour Display. Which meant we were fine!

The result was an impressive chartplotter, with a relatively large screen. For our limited sailing we did not need any more than basic navigational aids, but being able to zoom in and out of particular charts and keep a constant fix on where we are will be invaluable!

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