Sunday, July 11, 2010

Some More on Sailing 'Software'

In an earlier posting I mentioned how useful an AIS system was to us, along with our happiness with JVComm, the software we used to get weather faxes. Here I would like to mention a few other navigational and related items that we had with us.

Navionics Gold electronic charts - These were fine as long as you used them intelligently - electronic charts of any sort do have their limitations. On the plus side, we only needed two chart cartridges to go from the Canada/US border into the Pacific through Panama. This is enormously better from 2000 when I considered getting a chart plotter for my Niagara 35 and would have needed almost $2000 in cartridges just to go from Nova Scotia to Lake Ontario.

I am a paper chart kind of guy and often found myself using both at the same time (and not just using paper for backup). The electronic charts show varying amounts of detail depending on how much you have zoomed in or out. With paper you can mentally choose to look at the big picture or the small one. Also the amount and accuracy of data in the Caribbean was often a bit less than you might want to have - this may reflect the data they have to work with. In some cases they rely on Admiralty or US charts but they also use Imray (see below) or other paper charts designed for yachting.

The charts and Raymarine C8O chartplotter were terrific for planning purposes and for setting up an anchor watch - we did the latter every time we anchored. It was great to see our track at anchor to see if we might be dragging - built our confidence and helped us sleep. They were also handy, but not essential, for plotting our location on passages and for determining VMG when we had currents. Overall grade - B+

Paper Charts and Cruising Guides - Other than for long offshore passages (eg Norfolk-St Thomas, to/from Bermuda) we did not use standard government charts since there are a number of chart products produced for the many yachtsmen that go to the Caribbean and Bahamas. These are virtual necessities since the government charts do not focus on the things that cruisers want to see - eg depths in anchorages that are not commercial ports. In some areas one needs to buy charts and guides separately; in other cases, the functions are combined in one publication. I will mention the charts/guides we used in each region. In some areas more than one type of chart and more often guide are available. In addition there is quite a bit of good stuff available online. For example, I made copies of all of the entries for the countries we were visiting. Also, the Seven Seas Cruising Association has a wealth of information for members. (Membership is something like $55 a year and well worth it).

Bahamas - Because of their proximity to the US there are quite a few choices here. Standing out are the Explorer charts (3 volumes for the entire chain). These combine both detailed charts and guide information and I think it is fair to say that I have never seen a better cruising guide/chart book. This is all you really need for the Bahamas. We also bought the Waterway Guide and Skipper Bob for the Bahamas (sold as a package at the Annapolis Boat Show). The Guide is really aimed for those who stay in marinas while SB is aimed at those coming from Florida and going as far as Georgetown. Overall Grades - Explorer - A+; Waterway Guide - C; Skipper Bob - C

Spanish Virgin Islands to Grenada - Here we used separate charts and guides. I was able to buy a used set of Imray-Iolaire charts both small and large-scale. These were quite good and had a bit of 'guide' info on the back from Don Street. If you had to buy these retail it could get very costly and you might want the chartbooks mentioned in the Puerto Rico section below.

We used three guide books written by Stephen Pavlidis. These seemed dated (even beyond their copyright date) and are probably the worst edited publications I have ever seen. On the positive side, Pavilidis has done a lot of useful sounding in the areas where you want to go and this data seemed very accurate. He also writes in a folksy, engaging style. Most people seemed to use guides written by Chris Doyle. Those who used them seemed to like them but felt there was still room for improvement. Overall Grades - Imray-Iolaire charts - A; Pavlidis guides (Virgins, Leeward Islands, Windward Islands) - C+

Puerto Rico - My stash of Imray charts did not extend beyond the Spanish Virgins so we bought the NV chartbook (Region 10) which also includes the Dominican Republic and Turks and Caicos. These are published in Germany (in English!) and I found them to be very clear and high quality. They include blowups of many, but not all anchorages and harbours of interest. They include no 'guidebook' info, just charts. Other chartbooks are available for other parts of the Caribbean. There does not seem to be a guide book for PR so we relied on internet sources. Overall Grade - NV Chart book - A

Active Captain - This is a website,, that has maps and satellite images of much (all?) of the world along with descriptions of anchorages, marinas, and hazards provided by sailors. It is very useful in the US and Canada where coverage is extensive. The Caribbean and Bahamas are less well-covered and I found myself adding more reviews here than what I used but I am sure this situation will improve in the next few years and people discover this site. Overall Grade - US East Coast - B+; Bahamas and Caribbean - C+ - This site is kept up by Jimmy Cornell and his people and is a clearing house for current information about world cruising destinations featuring things like clearance procedures and availability of marine services. Overall Grade - A

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