When upgrading your boat’s electronics, you need to consider which electronic charts are available and supported by the various chartplotter manufacturers. The major multifunction displays from Garmin, Raymarine, Lowrance, Simrad, B&G and Furuno now support digital charts from several sources, including Raymarine, Jeppesen C-MAP, Lowrance, Fugawi, NV Charts, MapMedia, Navionics, Garmin and others. In many cases, this means users have choices regarding chart formats, data sources for specific regions, and enhanced features such as 3D and satellite views, tides and currents, custom sonar soundings, community edits and points-of-interest databases.
It is important to understand that commercial chart suppliers usually license chart data from authorized government hydrographic offices that also produce paper charts. The hydrographic offices of several countries, like the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the United States, share their data freely and also give away electronic versions of their paper charts. NOAA, for instance, offers more than 1,000 U.S. raster and vector charts. Several chart manufacturers reformat government electronic charts to work on their hardware, and numerous PC and tablet charting programs can display NOAA chart files directly.
In selecting electronic charts, you should decide whether you prefer raster or vector charts, or if you want to use both. Raster charts are scanned images of paper charts and are familiar to most everyone. They are typically larger in file size and lack features like configurable depth units, on/off map information layers and other advanced functionality found in vector charts. The traditional look and feel of raster charts may also reassure those easing into electronic charts.
Vector charts are databases of chart objects (soundings, shorelines, navigational aids, etc.) that are assembled into a screen image on the fly by the chartplotter. Since a human cartographer is not involved in creating the image, they often lack the nuance of paper charts and can look quite plain. They are typically smaller in file size, so that more regional coverage can be provided on a single chip.
While raster charts will occasionally and noticeably change scale as you zoom in and out, vector chart objects can change every time they’re zoomed. As a result, while a vector display can be less cluttered, you may have to zoom in quite far to see important details that are obvious on raster and paper charts. A vector chart can also look very precise when zoomed way in, but the user should understand that the detail is actually no more accurate than placing a magnifying glass on a paper chart. Note that as an added benefit, vector charts are “smarter” than rasters in the sense that depth soundings can be turned right side up even if you’re using the chart “head up” while going south. Objects like navigational aids can also be queried for extra detail, and most chartplotters allow you to customize display colors, set safety-depth colors and contours, and display or hide objects by categories.
Overall, I think the options available for vector charts make them more usable. Plus, the major vector chart suppliers have attempted to address the bland display issue with improved fonts, colors and image-assembly algorithms. Many brands of vector charts now closely resemble their paper chart origins. Finally, vector charts are more widely supported on a broader set of chartplotters.
Beyond that, there are several other questions to consider when selecting electronic charts. Most important is whether charts are available for your cruising area. Most chart publishers provide worldwide coverage for regions such as the East and West Coasts of the United States and Canada, unlike paper charts, where you typically purchase a few charts for your local sailing area. Several publishers offer both “wide” and “local” coverage areas.
Not every publisher uses the same underlying chart detail. For example, the Explorer Bahamas charts, which claim to be the best source of local data, are licensed by Garmin and Jeppesen (but not by Navionics). If you are cruising in the Bahamas, you might be better off using electronic charts based on this data. Be sure to check your chart region coverage, level of detail and data sources when purchasing.
All current chartplotters use standard Secure Digital (SD) or micro-Secure Digital (microSD) data cards. Older chartplotters used Compact Flash (CF) or proprietary cards (C-Card, Garmin). In many cases you can run standard SD or microSD cards on your home computer (PC or Mac) to update charts online and/or use them for planning and logging purposes. For instance, Garmin’s HomePort, Jeppesen’s PC-Planner, Raymarine’s Voyage Planner and Navico Insight Planner all allow you to transfer waypoints, tracks and routes between your home computer and chartplotter.
It is important to have up-to-date charts, especially when sailing in unfamiliar waters. With the SD or microSD card formats, as mentioned, you may be able to update charts on your personal computer. Raymarine, for instance, offers fresh Lighthouse charts quarterly and Navionics offers them daily. Many publishers are moving toward subscription services to update their marine charts. Garmin offers a BlueChart trade-in rebate program, with rebates from $50 to $125. Jeppesen offers its “Club Jeppesen,” with which for an annual fee of $89 you can update one chart region each year. NV Charts offers updates for half the regular sales price.
Depending on the chartplotter and chart type, there are many new and exciting features available. One interesting feature is the ability to select the style of the nav-aids symbols from U.S. International Association of Lighthouse Authorities Region A or B, or simplified generic symbols. Another neat feature is a 3-D view that allows you to visualize depth and land contours in detail around your boat, as well as up ahead. (3-D views are built specifically for your position and heading, which was never possible with a printing press.) Photo-map overlays blend nautical chart details with birds-eye-view satellite imagery, and some charts include extra harbor and marina detail, points of interest and local guidebooks. Others will include tides and current predictions.
One interesting feature to consider is community-sourced depth data, found on products like Navionics SonarCharts or Navico’s Insight Genesis, or the ability to build your own database. Many chartplotters can also now be wirelessly integrated with your smartphone or tablet.
Prices for electronic charts vary by publisher, region and add-on features. Raymarine and Furuno plotters can run free NOAA charts, which can be downloaded from their web sites. Jeppesen C-MAP charts start at $199, and C-MAP 4D at $299. Navionics Gold regions start at $199 and Platinum+ at $399. Only Garmin BlueChart g2 and g2 Vision charts can run on Garmin chartplotters, and prices start at $99. Prices and features are pretty consistent among product offerings and increase based on features.
Ultimately, there are more choices than ever when it comes to electronic charts. Many plotters run free NOAA vector and raster charts, with the option to purchase charts from Navionics, Jeppesen C-MAP, and many others. Garmin continues to support their BlueChart charts. Before making your purchase, you should first identify which features are important to you and your sailing needs. Then you can match your wish list to the options available to find the electronic charts most likely to do everything you want, in the price range that fits your budget.
Electronic Chart Types
Raymarine Lighthouse Charts are available in vector and raster formats that work on all current Raymarine chartplotters (a-, c-, e- and gS series, plus DragonFly). Currently available coverage includes free NOAA regions and third-party commercial charts for Canada, the Pacific, Mexico, the Caribbean and Scandinavia, which in many cases are raster duplicates of official charts. NV
NV Charts for Chartplotters uses their team of hydrographers, cartographers, geographers and professional mariners to offer customized raster charts for the U.S. East Coast, Bahamas, Caribbean, and parts of Europe. NV Charts are distinguished by their detail, design, choice of color graduations for depth contours, and price. Chart regions are available for Navico and Raymarine chartplotters and start at $98.
The MapMedia MM3D format works exclusively on Furuno NavNet 3D TimeZero plotters (as well as TimeZero charting software and apps from Nobletec and MaxSea). MapMedia charts are based on NOAA raster or vector charts as well as core data from Jeppesen C-Map, Navionics, and other sources. While MapMedia does not support the extra data provided with advanced C-Map and Navionics cartography packages, it does include high-resolution bathymetry and high-resolution PhotoFusion photo maps for many areas, as well as extraordinary 3D charting.
Fugawi Aboard currently offers official raster chart coverage for the U.S., Canada, Brazil and New Zealand in formats compatible with Navico and Raymarine plotters.
Jeppesen offers several variations of their popular worldwide C-MAP charts. C-MAP-NT+ is their classic line of vector charts, compatible with many chartplotters. C-Map BDS and Essentials are basic chart packages bundled with some Navico and Raymarine plotters, while Max-N and 4D-Max add extra features like more harbor and land detail, aerial photos, custom marina charts, the C-Marina Port database, and tide and current predictions. C-Map Max-N+ and 4D Max+ include auto-routing, photo maps and what’s called Dynamic Raster Charts, in which an overlay of official raster charts can be queried for information available on the vectors beneath.
Worldwide Navionics charts are available in many versions for many plotters. Gold level features include user-selectable safety depth contours, ports and port services, tides and currents, coastal points of interest and community edits. Platinum+ charts build on the Gold charts with satellite-photo map overlay, panoramic port pictures, SonarChart HD bathymetry, and geo-referenced coastal pilot books. Navionics + allows you to select your own portfolio of Gold marine charts and HotMaps Premium Lakes maps from a very wide region, along with SonarCharts and community edits. This allows you to tailor your sailing area and combine features onto a single 2GB SD data card. All Navionics cards include a one-year “Freshest Data” subscription service that provides updates to your nautical charts, SonarChart and community edits as often as desired via your personal computer.
Navico Insight Pro charts provide U.S. coastal coverage charts for many of their Lowrance, Simrad and B&G chartplotters, including fishing areas and 3D perspective view. Nautic Insight HD adds enhanced MapTech marine POI detail, enhanced fishing information, and 20 levels of high-definition shaded relief imagery. Navico’s Insight Genesis allows you to create custom maps from your own sonar survey data. Their free service allows you to download and contribute sonar depth data, while a premium subscription lets you merge more than 12 trips per body of water, view and save bottom-composition layers on custom maps, and keep custom maps private.
The Garmin BlueChart g2 coverage built into many Garmin plotters features integrated maps with shaded depth contours, coastlines, spot-soundings, nav-aids, port plans, wrecks, obstructions, intertidal zones, restricted areas, and IALA symbols, tide stations, currents, depth contours, fishing charts, bottom contours and depth soundings. BlueChart g2 Vision cards add satellite-photo maps that overlay a realistic view of land and water on the chart; aerial photography for many ports, harbors and marinas; auto guidance safe path to destination; and detailed points of interest data, including the ability to search for roads, restaurants, attractions and other POI’s along the shore. Additionally, Vision chart cards let you configure shallow depth contours and enable MarineEye 3D “bird’s eye view” from above and behind as well as a FishEye 3D underwater view of the ocean floor.
The current trend among multifunction displays is to support electronic charts from multiple sources. Raymarine chartplotters support free Raymarine LightHouse Charts for the United States, Brazil and New Zealand, and numerous commercial charts using the same format, like Fugawi Aboard and NV Charts, are being added to their online chart store. They also support Navionics Silver, Gold and Platinum+ charts, including SonarCharts, as well as Jeppesen C-Map Essentials, 4D-Max, and 4D-Max+ chart packages.
Lowrance, Simrad, and B&G chartplotters support Navico Nautic Insight and Insight Genesis, Jeppesen C-MAP Max-N BDS, Max-N, and Max-N+, Navionics Gold and Platinum+, and many partner chart developers like Fugawi Aboard and NV Charts. Navico is the first to make it possible to purchase and download charts directly to its chartplotters using a WiFi connection to its GoFree Shop.
Furuno chartplotters support charts processed by sister company MapMedia. They include free charts based on NOAA raster or vector charts, as well as commercial charts based on core data from Jeppesen C-Map, Navionics, and other sources. Garmin continues to support only their Garmin BlueChartg2 and g2 Vision charts, which are based on data from many sources.