Know How: Chartplotters

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When it comes to accurately keeping track of your whereabouts, modern chartplotters and multi-function displays (MFDs) are virtually indispensable. Provided they are properly networked to other onboard instrumentation (including AIS, GPS and radar), typically via a NMEA 0183 or NMEA 2000 data backbone, chartplotters/MFDs provide a wealth of real-time data that can dramatically simplify your on-the-water experience, and keep you and your boat much safer, to boot.

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The biggest consideration when selecting a chartplotter/MFD is functionality. A trailer-sailer, for example, has entirely different information requirements than a bluewater cruiser or a tricked-out raceboat. While all chartplotters/MFDs allow you to easily navigate, not all devices help you steer the fastest course, gauge wind shifts and currents, or calculate starting-line distances. Most major marine-electronics manufacturers offer several different models catering to a variety of needs and budgets. Sailors are advised to carefully consider their actual information needs before going shopping. Don’t just buy something with all kinds of gee-whiz functions because it looks impressive at a boat show. Think about how you will actually use the system out on the water.

Screen size and User Interface (UI) are the next considerations. While bigger is better, especially when it comes to touchscreen “smart glass,” better is also more expensive. To make the best choice, consider your mounting and installation options, and then buy the biggest chartplotter/MFD you can fit in the allotted space (without breaking your bank). Also be sure to spend some time familiarizing yourself with the unit to make sure you’re comfortable with its UI (incidentally, a really fun way to pass some time at your local chandlery or a boat show). Many of today’s chartplotters/MFDs come standard with touchscreen controls, though many of them still include built-in hard keys or an external remote control for those times when conditions are too sloppy to accurately “tap to navigate.” Imagine using your smart phone in the rain with gloves on, not good!

Lastly, many of today’s chartplotters/MFDs are designed to “play nicely” with third-party instruments—provided, of course, that they can share information via an NMEA 0183/2000 protocol. However, be sure to research compatibility with your existing electronics before buying a new unit, so you don’t find yourself the proud owner of a bunch of electronics that don’t get along. 

Photos courtesy of (left to right) Raymarine, B&G, Garmin

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