Taking your boat out to sea used to consist of months of preparation and research, and also hundreds of printed cruising guides that were outdated from the moment they were printed. In the last two decades, chart plotters and electronic navigation replaced the inefficient way of using printed charts to navigate.
The navigational skills of sailors and other boaters are essential in order for them to successfully complete their journey, avoid underwater collisions, and other possible issues that could occur while on sea. Using computer software to guide you while sailing is an incredibly useful tool, but it is worth mentioning that without the proper training, going out to sea shouldn’t be done by beginners.
Today, the above mentioned paper charts were replaced by specialized software connected to the Internet, that offer exact measurements of latitude and longitude, and updated information regarding all aspects of sailing – storms approaching, close-by marinas and anchorage points, etc.
Using specialized software to navigate at sea allows you to always know where you are on the map, and what maneuvers to perform in order to reach your destination as soon as possible. If your destination is far away from you and the route is complicated, you can use this type of software to generate way points by using the chart plotter or app, and build a route.
Because of the fact that sometimes electronics fail, it is recommended that you always carry a set of paper charts with you, in order to be safe in any possible situation.
Let’s explore some of the best software options for marine navigation.
OpenCPN is a great marine navigation software that has a wide range of features that will surely make sailing easier for you.
All you need in order to get started, is this software installed on a PC and a GPS receiver connected to the computer. You can start navigating easily by downloading the free charts from NOAA (Nation Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).
This software was designed by sailors for sailors, so it contains a wide range of useful features:
- Can connect laptop to GPS receiver and see your boat in real time on the chart
- Customizable ship-tracking display options
- Click on chart to create waypoints and routes
- Automatic chart quilting – can join separate charts with the same scale
- Chart zoom in/zoom out, scroll and pan, etc.
- Built-in offline tide levels and currents information
- Instant man-overboard marker with the ability to automatically return course, distance, etc.
- Daylight/nighttime color schemes for the dashboard – allows you to easily see the information presented no matter how much light is around you
- Detailed and written offline instruction manual and help screens
This software works with raster charts or ENC vector Charts from NOAA, and also provides you with 3 modes of displaying your chart – north-up, course-up, look-ahead.
In order to prevent any serious damage to your boat, OpenCPN has a built in anchor and boat alarm. This alarm starts ringing if the software detects that your anchor is dangerously close to the shore or any other obstructions.
This software also allows you to measure distances on the chart by simply dragging and dropping a virtual line. Having this feature at your disposal makes sure that you keep your distance from other large ships, by requiring them to send out an identification signal.
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ActiveCaptain is another great software option that allows you to navigate your boat to any destination. The features included in this software shows you information about anchorages, marinas and other important local data.
The information you store regarding your route and also data about the weather and currents is easily searchable, offering you fast results. This software integrates perfectly with NOAA charts, and can also use street maps and satellite views. The data is continuously refreshed by over 100k boaters and sailors that input data around the clock, offering you more accurate information than ever.
It’s user friendly design is incredibly useful for sailors. Because of it’s easily understandable menu, maps and options, you can complete usually complicated calculations with ease, and concentrate more on the actual sailing.
One of the best features found in ActiveCaptain is the Interactive Crusing Guidebook. This feature is the engine that runs this software. You can set up the desired location by either using base charts and maps, or by typing in a name in the search box.
The software then takes that information and shows you data that’s available in that area, coding different elements – marinas, anchorages and hazards – , by colour. If you feel like you need more detailed information regarding a marina, anchorage point, or hazard, you can just click on the element, and a pop-up window will appear that presents you with other sailors comments, recommandations, and other important data.
This allows you to easily track your route or any possible issues you might encounter on your way, and deal with them accordingly.
You can find a good range of marine maps on the ActiveCaptain official website.
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TimeZero is another powerful marine navigation application that allows you to manage all aspects of crusing on your boat from one user-friendly dashboard designed by sailors – for sailors.
This software was released in 2 different versions, each covering the needs of different types of users. TimeZero also contains other important tools like :
- TZ Charts – contains an entire calatog of up to date charts, click here if you want to explore the chart options
- TZ Coastal Monitoring – contains all features needed to make the system suitable for use on oil and gas platforms
- Can connect to different instruments in order to collect navigation data – NMEA0183, NMEA2000 or Furono NavNet Network
- Autopilot output connection
- Can be installed on 2 computers
- Chart engine with seeamless chart redraw options and 2D and 3D views
- Touch screen compatible user interface
- Day, Dusk and Night Mode – allows you to see your data correctly no matter how much light there is outside
- Worldwide planning charts and 3D database
- Raster or vector chart compatibility
- PhotoFusion – automatically mixes satellite photos with nautical charts
Because of the large number of features found in this software, it is hard to choose which of them should be presented, here are some more important features that can help you reach your destination safely and in time:
- Worldwide tide database
- Anti-grounding cone – alarm that is triggered when you are dangerously close to hitting ground
- Print route feature
- Unlimited number of marks, waypoints and routes
- Unlimited boundaries, circles, lines and annotations
- Weather data service – rain, air temperature, winds, clouds, waves, oceanic currents, atmospheric pressure, etc.
- Weather forecast, tides and currents data with animation
TimeZero Professional – contains all the features found in the Navigator, and adds:
- NavData allows you to configure any actions to a custom button
- Can import S57 Charts (NOAA)
- Custom depth shading
- Custom contour lines
- Track line coloring – line tracking based on SST, speed, depth, etc.
- Search & Rescue (SAR) route patterns
- Advanced events management
- Loran C & Decca grid
- Ocean data service – measures the temperature of the sea surface, plankton, altimetry, etc.
- AIS MKD – allows you to set voyage data and navigational status
- FLIR thermal camera integration – M-Series control and tracking
- Fuel Management – fuel range ring, route warning, distance to empty, etc
- Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in other travel tools and accessories, check out our wide collection of guides.
Polar Navy can not be compared with the previously presented software in this article because of the limited amount of featured contained. This tool was designed to be light-weight and easy to use application that will help you navigate charts and reach your destination as soon as possible.
Even though this software doesn’t have the same amount of features that other software have, PolarView offers you access to a good range of tools. With this software you can plan passages and charts, observe weather patterns, and tides.
It supports GPS navigation and offers a good range of powerful electronic charts with live GPS data, all in one all encompassing dashboard that offers an overview over all collected data.
Here are some of the most notable features:
- S57/S63 vector chart and BSB raster chart support
- Visual route and waypoint control
- Built-in GRIB weather download service
- Built-in tides and currents on-screen information
- Works with both digital and analog instruments
- Great number of worldwide charts available
The software options presented in this article will surely help you navigate the sea easily.
The features found in this list offer you peace of mind regarding keeping your ship on course, offers great up-to-date information from other sailors, can show you weather patterns, tide information and places that you can dock in.
This navigation software also gives you detailed information about how much fuel you need, how fast you would reach your destination, and the best way to reach it.
We would love to know what your experience was when trying the software we presented in this article. Please feel free to let us know in the comment section below.
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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in January 2019 and has been since updated for freshness, and accuracy.