Overboard with Electronics

Not even kayaking is immune from the electronics explosion of the late twentieth century. Now we can dispense with the large, bulky paper charts that we slowly mangle into illegibility as we fold and stuff them into our waterproof chart holders.

Today’s chart-plotting software allows you to view one or several nautical charts at once on any scale you wish, and then produce a high-quality paper printout of the desired segment.

When planning trips, chart-plotting software makes it easy to quickly plot and evaluate specific paddling routes in terms of distance specific paddling routes in terms of distance traveled and overall feasibility. With a handheld marine Global Positioning System (GPS) in combination with tide and current software, you’ll have tools that are useful for planning and undertaking kayaking trips.

To test whether the software and hardware that is designed for use with larger vessels can be useful when scaled down to the smaller size and speed of flotsam, jetsam and kayaks, I chose a difficult paddling route in Washington State’s San Juan Islands that would expose me to strong currents and long, exposed crossings.

I paddled nine nautical miles, from Washington Park on Fidalgo Island to Doe Bay on Orcas Island. There were two crossings: three nautical miles across Bellingham Channel, and about five nautical miles across Rosario Strait.

The currents in this area average two knots, and can peak at over four knots near Strawberry Island-faster than the comfortable cruising speed of most paddlers.

I needed to follow precise routes to make landfall in the right spots and to avoid shipping and ferry lanes. To add to the complexity of the route, the currents in Bellingham Channel have a strong component perpendicular to the desired direction of travel, making for challenging paddling.

The software I tested was Nobeltec’s Chart View Planner for Windows 3.1, 95, and 98, which includes basic charts, tides and current software and GPS-interface software. (ChartView is not available for Macintosh, Linux, or Windows NT platforms.) For the money, this program provides everything a kayaker needs to get started, and has very little in the way of unneces-sary features that add to the cost.

An example of an unneces-sary feature would be real-time position plotting on a laptop using data from an attached GPS: It’s not very practical for kayakers to run a laptop computer while underway-I don’t recommend trying it!

I tested the software on two systems: a speedy Pentium 11 desktop with a 35OMhz processor, a 6.4 gigabyte (Gb) hard drive and 64 megabytes (Nfb) of RAM (a dual-boot system that uses Windows 95 and Linux), and a not-so-speedy Sony VAIO PCG-CLX laptop with a Pentium 266Mhz processor, 4.3Gb hard drive and 64 Mb of RAM that uses Windows 98 only. The desktop computer is equivalent in speed to the low-end range of computers being sold today, while the laptop is equivalent to the low-end computers of last year.

I found little difference in speed between the two systems, and both machines had no trouble running the program at its most memory- and CPU-intensive settings. The minimum system requirements are quite modest: a recommended Intel 386 processor, 8Mb RAM and 4Mb of hard-drive space.

Installation on both machines was simple. The program comes, quaintly, on several floppy disks instead of a CD-ROM disk. The hard-drive space taken up is less than ten megabytes, which should barely even dent the hard-drive space of most users. Installing full-blown nautical charts, however, will take up considerably more disk space.

My installation of the entire set of NOAA nautical charts for Washington State (not in-cluded with the program) used up 11OMb, which is a sizeable chunk of space, but not that significant in this era of 25-plus Gb hard drives. The charts can also be read directly from the CD-ROM with some loss in speed.

Two other programs are installed automatically during in-stallation: Tides and Currents Lite and GPS-C. Tides and Currents Lite provides a worldwide database of tide and current stations that seamlessly integrates with the chart-viewing program.

GPS-C provides an easy-to-use mechanism for transferring data, way points and routes between the chart-viewing pro-gram and a hand-held GPS that is connected by way of an after-market serial cable adapter.

Chart View Planner comes with a set of planning charts for North America. These charts have detailed outlines of the coastlines, with very rudimentary navigational data-prima-rily the names of major landmarks-and no bathymetric data.

I found myself taken aback by the lack of detail in these charts, compared to the nautical charts with which I am most familiar. However, since these charts can be used with tide and current calculations, they are still quite useful for kayakers.

Probably the single most useful function of this program is the ability to quickly plan a complex route with multiple legs and evaluate both the length of each leg and the total distance traveled. While a pair of dividers on a paper chart serves this purpose adequately at a fraction of the cost, Chart View Planner adds much more functionality, such as instant range and bearing calculations, and multiple routes that can be saved to disk and accessed at a later date.

I really like the “save route” feature, since I usually spend a lot of time planning complex trips that I might like to do sometime in the future. With Chart View Planner, I can instantly recall any trip from a previous session and quickly adapt it to fit the limitations of time and distance for the trip participants.

The planning charts are not suitable for actual navigation on the water; full-blown nautical charts with all aids to navigation and bathymetrics are a necessity when it comes down to getting into the kayak and going on a trip. Fortunately, Chart View Planner is designed to integrate with digitized versions of NOAA charts.

When downloaded onto your computer, you will find that the computer screen view of these charts provides the same level of detail as a paper chart. The electronic NOAA charts must be purchased separately from Chart View Planner. Electronic charts are generally cheaper than paper charts, especially if you need a large number of charts to cover a wide area. For this review, Ievaluated aCD-ROMproducedbyMaptech (www.maptech.com) that contains all of the NOAA charts for Washington State, including the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound-approximately sixty charts in all. This CD-ROM retails for $199; a great value, considering that the paper equivalent would probably cost at least twice as much. Chart View Planner also reads most other digitized nautical chart formats available world-wide.

When combined with digitized NOAA charts, the Chart View Planner becomes a truly remarkable program. The visual quality is equal to a paper chart, and in some cases better, since zooming in beyond the normal scale results in little loss of quality. The program automatically calculates the latitude and longitude of any point on the screen. This makes it easy to plan routes and trips, and to mark way points for possible upload to a GPS. The route creation function was very quick and easy to use. In five minutes I planned a four-day trip that covered @ miles and uploaded the entire route to a GPS. I also uploaded several other significant way points, such as a reef to avoid and shipping lane bound-aries. It would have taken an hour or more to do this the old-fashioned way with a paper chart and dividers, and by entering the way points manually into the GPS. In addition, the way-points uploaded by the Chart View Planner are much more accurate in location than visually identifying latitudes and longitudes on a map.

Chart View Planner’s Tides and Currents Lite software, a trial version of Tides and Currents, calculates tides and currents at thousands of locations in North America and other parts of the world. This data is integrated into the chart view, displayed as a colored bar for tides and colored arrows pointing in the direction of the current. The current arrows are scaled to represent the current strength. The tides and currents can be animated to show how they vary at a selected location over a period of hours, days or weeks. It also has a useful table and graphical view of the currents at a single location that can simultaneously display daily and weekly graphs. Nighttime hours in the graph are shaded, so it is very easy to know which currents you will encounter during the day. I particularly liked the graphing and shading features, since the currents in my paddling region are strong and I usually have to plan for or around them.

Tides and Currents Lite retains almost all of the functionality of the original. The difference is that it is limited to work for one year from the date of installation of the Chart View Planner, and does not allow custom charts to be printed (a minor feature). After one year, the user may upgrade to the full version of Tides and Currents for $89.95. While this may leave a bad taste in some users’ mouths who do not like “crippleware,” the Chart View Planner is outstand-ing, bug-free software at a great price, and I think that the inclusion of a free year’s worth of Tides and Currents is generous and that the upgrade is well worth the money.

The software described in this review is all quite useful at home, but since you can’t take your PC with you when you paddle, how useful is it when on the water? One feature of the Chart View that works well on the water is its ability to make excellent print-outs. It is convenient to have charts in a small, manageable size with a customized, zoomed-in view of the paddle trip. I used a relatively modest color printer to produce 8″ x 11″ full-color charts of my paddle trip. I also printed out graphs of currents and tides at relevant locations. I sprayed my printouts with a waterproofing agent used for topo maps and happily put them into my water-proof chart holder, replacing the bulky and expensive paper chart that covers much unnecessary area. Of course, these printouts are not officially recommended to replace up-to-date nautical charts for navigation, but this is a calculated risk that I was willing to take.

If you wish, you can have your printed charts show previ-ously plotted routes and any marks or notes you made earlier. It is easy to choose which routes or marks are printed, keeping clutter on the map to a minimum. Using Tides and Currents Lite software, you can print tide and current graphs for a single day, a month, or three months (text-only). I liked the monthly view-it is graphical, and shows the peak currents, daylight hours, sunrise and sunset, and the phase of the moon. In this calendar-like view, each day relevant to the trip is easy to cut out with scissors and paste onto the printed paper chart for a complete, customized, at-a-glance view of the entire trip. An upgrade to the full version of Tides and Currents will allow printing of custom graphs in user-defined rows and columns, and enough data to calculate tides until the year 2100.

Chart View Planner is also bundled with GPS-interface soft-ware. You’ll need to buy a serial cable that connects your computer to your GPS unit. I tested this feature with a Garniin 12 GPS, and I was impressed with the transparency of the interface even for the casual user. Using the GPS Setup Wizard, setup is fairly simple: After selecting the appropriate model, you are given specific instructions for configuring the settings on the GPS unit. Transfer of routes and way points is done through the Transfer Wizard, which is also very easy to use. Tracks recorded by the GPS during the paddle trip can be downloaded for review after the trip.

For the money, Chart View Planner is an outstanding value for a kayaker who undertakes frequent trips of a moderately complex nature, especially if currents are a consideration. The program is easy to use, has good documentation, and is well-thought-out for planning trips. The printing capabilities are quite good, and printed charts and tide or current graphs are suitable for use onthe water during the trip. Finally, the addition of separately pur-chased digitized nautical charts has the potential to completely replace large, expensive paper nautical charts. I’ll print out custom charts whenever possible, although I would recommend this only for navigators who are already experienced with using traditional navigational methods (e.g. paper charts, dividers, compass, etc.). All kayakers should become familiar with non-electronic naviga-tional methods, since to rely solely upon electronics in a salt-water environment is to invite disaster. For experienced navigators however, electronics can be an effective aid to saving time or enhancing navigation.

Nobeltec’s Chart View Planner for Windows 3.1, 95 and 98 retails for $129, including basic charts, tides and current software and GPS-interface software. Nobeltec Nautical Software, PMB 132,14657 S.W. Teal Blvd., Beaverton, OR 97007,(800) 946-2877 or (503) 5792414, www.tides.com

Hand-held Global Positioning System (GPS) units have become very tempting electronic devices for touring kayakers. GPS units cost as little as $100, although the less expensive units have a limited number of features. More full-featured units cost around $150, and fancier chart-plotting units cost around $400. Although I do not con-sider a hand-held GPS to be as essential for navigation as a chart and compass, it can be quite useful for kayakers as an enhance-ment to traditional navigation.

GPS units communicate with a global network of positioning satellites to determine the exact position of the unit on the surface of the earth in latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates. Another standard feature of all GPSs is the ability to mark a waypoint or landmark in latitude and longitude, and then to give you direc-fions on navigating to that waypoint from your current position. For instance, if you are stuck on an island in fog, you could use the GPS to navigate through the fog to the precise location of the put-in, provided that you entered the put-in as a waypoint. All units have memory that allows the storage of multiple waypoints, and some units have built-in waypoints that include cities, roads and marine-navigafion aids such as buoys and lighthouses.

Most GPS units have a variety of meth-ods that can aid you in navigating to a waypoint, and many also include a track plotter that records your path. All units in this review include a route function, which allows multiple waypoints to be linked together to define a path. As vou travel along a path, the GPS gives navigational directions to the next point along your route, and automatically switches to the next waypoint as you pass successive waypoints. Most units allow you to store multiple routes in the same manner as waypoints. Finally, some units in this review, like the Lowrance Global Map, have a built-in chart plotter that shows the outline of land on the track plotter as a default, and that can use optional up-grade memory chips for specific, detailed chart information.

A device that calculates an exact posi-fion is extremely valuable information for mariners of any sort, and explicit naviga-tional directions to multiple waypoints is an extraordinary asset. Just imagine mari-ners prior to the 20th century who relied upon sextants to determine latitude and clocks to determine longitude, or native peoples who accurately navigated to dis-tant points by watching the heavens or by singing songs that contained navigational information. Still, kayakers tend to stay closer to land than most other mariners, and we travel at slower speeds. It is not a given that a GPS is necessarily useful for kayakers, and I designed my test trip to ascertain whether a GPS was well-suited to kayaking requirements.

Selective Availability

Selective Availability is the deliberate error introduced to the global positioiiing system bv the U.S, Departmeiit of Defense for security reasons. When SA is turned on (almost always the case), the maximum horizontal accuricv of a handheld unit is 50 to 100 meters. With SA turned off, most handheld receivers will get a horizontal accuracv of 20 to 30 meters, If a minimum of four satellites are being tracked, the resulting three-dimensional fix will give altitude data as well, but the accuracy is two to three times worse than the horizontal data. It can be quite amusing to have a displayed altitiide of 100+ ft when paddling at sea level. Selective availability will be eliminated sometime before 2OO5, when a second civilian GPS frequency is turned on. Using Chart View Planner, I planned and uploaded a route to Doe Island from Washington Park that had five waypoints. The first leg was a crossing of Bellingham Channel, where the flood currents set at roughly a 60-degree angle to the direction of desired travel. This requires paddling at a ferry angle, because the drift of the current hinders getting around Reef Point. I found the track plotting page of the GPS to be quite useful here, since the planned route was plotted next to the real-time track of my position. With this information, it is very easy to see if you are drifting above or below the desired route, and then adjust your ferry angle. Of course, you can also do this without fancy electronics if suitable range and bearing objects are visible; but sometimes visibility is poor, and some-times there simply are no objects suitable for sighting range and bearing. Under such circumstances, it would be hard for a kayaker to get any concise information without a GPS, although you can use dead reckoning to conduct the ferry if the cur-rent velocity is known to you. David Burch describes this method in Fundamentals of Kayak Navigation.

In making the Bellingham Channel crossing–and others later–I realized that one distinct problem with using a GPS for navigating to a waypoint is that it calculates speed and course of travel ” over the bottom,” as opposed to through the water. If you are paddling at three knots into a three-knotcurrent,theGPSwillshowyour speed as zero knots. The reported speed and courseareacombinationof thekayak’s forward movement and of the current ac-ing on the kayak. Most of the GPS naviga-tional screens give directions based on the relative difference between the absolute speed and course over the bottom and the location of the desired waypoint. For this to be useful at all, a ferrying kayaker must mentally do a geometric subtraction of the current vector from the GPS vector to ar-rive at a proper course vector. This is sim-ply not feasible for most people and, thus, we arrive at a fundamental limitation of using a GPS while kayaking in currents. However, the track-plotting function re-ally helps to visually eliminate this problem and, of course, you won’t encounter this problem if you are paddling on a lake or someplace where there are no currents.

Still, the limitation of the GPS when used with strong currents is quite a boon when proper planning and foresight al-low for the current direction to directly coincide with the course. This is because you can learn your exact speed over the bottom, and even perhaps feel a little bit like Greg Barton when the GPS indicates that you are travelling at over six knots while paddling leisurely. The rest of my test trip from Reef Point to Doe Island did exactly that. However, this does raise an inherent problem when using a GPS to measure absolute speed. Since the normal kayak cruising speed is quite low, it is problematic for a GPS to measure kayak speed: As the measured position drifts as a result of selective availability (see sidebar), GPS calculates a speed that can often ch a significant fraction of a knot. I find that this can affect the accuracy when traveling at three knots or less, and that different GPS units coped with this problem differently.

Significant currents notwithstanding, a GPS is a very handy tool for navigating to specific point. I did not test this when addling in fog or at night, but I did try to imagine such conditions. I concluded that GPS could add a large margin of safety when navigating in low-visibility conditons; however, this is no excuse to ignore classic navigational techniques, because Murphy’s Law certainly applies when electronics are used in close proximity to salt water (see sidebar).

I tested four models of hand-held GPSS: the Garmin 12, the Magellan 320 and 300, and the Lowrance Globalmap 12. The Garmin and the Magellan 320 are the most common class of hand-held GPS units, the industry-standard features such as substantial waypoint and route storage, multiple styles of navigation screens, a small footprint, and price in the $200 range. The Magellan 300, with limited features, is less-expensive alternative; the Lowrance has a built-in chart plotter and complete features. Each model has a 12-channel parallel receiver that greatly decreases the amount of time that it takes for the unit to acquire a fix from the network of satellites: It usually takes less than one minute. Of the models reviewed, I would recommend the Garmin and the Magellan 320 for use in kayaking.

By now you can see that it is very easy to go overboard using marine electronics — not to mention the expense. However, these items have left the realm of mere gadgetry to become products that are truly useful for kayakers, especially when PCs and GPSs are integrated. While I would not advise that these electronics be used in lieu of chart and compass navigational skills, they can augment them significantly. In addition, learning to use these electronics can be a lot of fun, because mastering them rewards you with incredibly detailed information in much less time than with traditional navigational methods. If you follow in my footsteps and go totally over-board using marine electronics, be sure to take a moment to reflect upon the miracles of the digital age and on what Ferdinand Magellan might have thought about accurate digital charts and a chart-plotting GPS on his circumnavigation of the world in the sixteenth century.

Garmin 12

This unit is a recent model in a line of hand-held GPSs that has been around for a while, and it shows, because the software interface is very well done. This unit was the easiest to use of all the models tested and, in general, most of its features and operations are slightly more intuitive. Its multiple buttons are easier to understand and to use intuitively, so I was not as apt to press the wrong button as I was with the other units. The Garmin generally uses fewer navigational screens to present the same essential navigational information; each screen tends to display more of what you need than the screens on the other units. An example of this is the track-plotter page, which also conveniently dis-plays course and speed at the bottom, and range and bearing to desired waypoint at the top. I really liked this feature, since I used this page most often while kayaking. I also liked the route summary page, which neatly summarizes the current range and bearing to each waypoint on the route. I found that this unit was generally accurate at calculating speed, even when paddling at around one knot. The Garmin does, however, suffer from a lower resolution display than the Magellan 320 or the Lowrance, and its back light is the weakest of the four, although it is still readable. Also, it has a built-in database of major and minor cities that appear in the track plotter and that can be navigated to, but it does not have any information on nautical-navigational aids that would be of benefit to kayakers. Battery life is in the 1225 hour range, and the Garmin can hold an impressive 500 user-defined waypoints and 20 routes. Price: $149. Garmin International, Inc., 1200 E. 151st St., Olathe, KS 66062, (913) 397-8200, www.garmin.com

Waterproofing Your GPS I found that by putting my CPS unit inside my waterproof chart holder, it was both dry and visible. Most manufacturers claim that their units are waterproof, but I am skeptical, I think this means that they would do fine against the odd droplet or two that finds Its way Into my chart holder. While it was possible to read the display and operate the buttons from this position, I had to stop paddling and lean forward each time I wanted to consult the GPS. I later learned to prop the GPS up at an angle such that the display was more face-on; then I could more easily consult the display without interrupting my paddling. The smaller GPS units obscured an acceptable amount of chart area, In my opinion, and this could be further reduced by printing out custom charts using the Chart View Planner.

Magellan 320

This unit is the newest generation of hand-held GPSS, and it has the most features. It features a high-resolution screen that aids viewing, and a very impressive built-in database of worldwide cities and nautical-navigational aids. The default nav-aids data-base seems very complete, and it can be augmented by download-ing from an optional DataSend CD-ROM ($39.99) that can be purchased from Magellan. This GPS also has very complete features, including a large number of customizable screens. This makes it a little harder to learn how to use; it is not quite as intuitive as the Garmin. However, once you learn how to operate it, this unit would be very useful for kayaking. Like the Garmin, it has memory for 500 user-defined waypoints and 20 routes, and the battery life is in the 1225 hour range. One drawback is that the unit comes with position averaging as a method for coping with selective availability; this is done automatically at seemingly random timeswhen theunitis stationary. However, since kayakers travel quite slowly, it often thought I was stationary when I was really underway, resulting in my speed being recorded at zero knots. I found this to be very disconcerting, and I could not find a way to change or turn off the position-averaging setting. When not doing position averaging, the 320’s speed measurements tended to agree with the Garmin. I often wished that the track plotter would display speed, although perhaps I am a little speed obsessed, since this information is not that crucial for kayaking or navigating -unless you are doing dead reckoning, in which case you are not allowed to use a GPS. Price: $198. Magellan, 960 Overland Court, San Dimas, CA 91773, (909) 394-5000, www.magellangps.com

Magellan 300

At $99, this unit is substantially cheaper than the others, yet it lacks the features of other GPS units. Its memory holds 100 waypoints, and one route with up to ten waypoints. It has three navigation screens, but it does not have a track plotter page. Additionally, it does not have any built-in waypoints, and it cannot be interfaced with a PC, so all waypoints have to be entered manually. The text and graphics use thin lines and a blocky font, which makes the display harder to read than the other units; I had considerable difficulty reading the display when it was secured inside a water-proof map case on the foredeck of my kayak. However, it does function fine for navigating between waypoints, even if the inter-face is not as polished as the more expensive units. I think it would be useful primarily as an emergency backup navigation aid in poor visibility, although the small memory might require pro-gramming in waypoints on the spot, and the lack of a track plotter would make navigation in currents more difficult. I would recom-mend this unit for those who want the backup of GPS navigation, but who don’t plan to use a GPS regularly enough to justify the extra expense for advanced features. Magellan, 960 Overland Court, San Dimas, CA 91773, (909) 394-5000, www.magellangps.com

Lowrance GlobalMap 12

The Lowrance GPS, at 7.84″ high by 3.38″ wide, by 2.81″ deep and 20 ounces (with battery pack), is much larger and heavier than the other three GPS units. In fact, it is large enough that I would consider it unsuitable to have on deck in a kayak, though I am certain that some people might disagree. For those people, the Lowrance provides both advanced and refined features. It combines the complete features and built-in database of the Magellan 320 with the intuitive feel and complete screens of the Garmin. It does take significantly more time to learn its use and to customize the display, but once this is done, I found it to be the easiest to use with the most essential information on the fewest screens. The Lowrance also has a beautiful high-resolution display that is easy to read at a distance and in bright sunlight. While the chart-plotting capability is very nice to have, I do not consider this to be essential navigation information for kayaking, since paddlers who are concerned about navigation ought to have a physical chart on top of their deck. The chart plotter can be augmented by downloading detailed information onto an in-cluded lMb flash-memory chip, and special chart memory chips can be purchased and plugged into the back. I wasn’t able to test the quality of the add-on flash memory charts, so I don’t know if they are really useful. It is a nice feature, though, for those who mightbe interested in it, although I suspect that such folks would be relatively few and far between. It comes complete with a DC power adapter, PC interface cable and database CD-ROM, which is nice. Price: $449. Lowrance Electronics, 12000 E. Skelly Dr., Tulsa, OK 74128, (918)437-6881, www.lowrance.com

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