Not every sailor wants or needs a large-screen chartplotter mounted on a binnacle or bulkhead, and for these sailors there is now a wide range of smaller, much less expensive digital charting alternatives.
The old wisdom about good things coming in small packages is true of plotters, too. Many units with 4- to 5-inch screens are giants when it comes to crunching data, zooming, panning and seamlessly scrolling from chart to chart. For those not quite ready to make five-digit commitment to a multiple-screen networked navigation system, the lower end of the product line offers plenty of worthwhile alternatives.
Still, it’s true that less is not always more, and a smaller screen typically can’t match a larger multifunction display (MFD) when it comes to peripheral cartography and the valuable extra information a large unit provides regarding your surroundings. Those with small-screen plotters also end up zooming in and out much more often than those with larger displays. But at $600 to $1,000—a quarter of the cost of a 12-inch MFD—you still get a plotter with a built-in GPS unit and digital cartography that delivers a bright, daylight-readable display of your boat’s position on the same charting systems used by full-size units. Equally import, smaller plotters are just as accurate as their big brothers.
I prefer a dedicated plotter over a smartphone or tablet, because the unit is fixed in place; is more spray, rain and breaking wave resistant; and affords the entire crew instantaneous, hands-free position confirmation. In contrast to a smartphone, a plotter is hard-wired to the boat’s electrical system, and neither the sun’s glare nor the scorching summer heat will impair its functionality. You also needn’t worry about being engaged in a phone call when you most need guidance, like when you’re fast approaching a shoal in a narrow channel.
In the simplest of setups, small plotters are used as a stand-alone aid to navigation, and most are quick to garner a GPS fix. Most also come with a full ensemble of NOAA raster and/or vector scharts covering either U.S. coastal waters or the Great Lakes and inland waters. Some offer private-sector charts from companies such as Jepessen or Navionics. Many units can also be networked with other onboard gear via NMEA or proprietary cabling. Two of their most appealing features are the ease with which they can be installed and their low power demands.
Putting a small plotter to use
All too often marine electronics are evaluated according to what they can do as opposed to how they will actually be used. Buyers focus on the spec sheet and an array of bells and whistles rather than on how their crew will use the information the system makes available. Take, for example, those racing or cruising in local waters and enjoying predominantly clear and sunny weather. Their normal routine includes visual watch-keeping augmented by glances at instruments and perhaps a peek at a digital chart to confirm local knowledge. At night, in good visibility, visual navigation remains in play, augmented by more frequent glances at the plotter, radar and AIS. It’s when visual navigation is hampered that reliance shifts toward electronic navigation, and a smaller screen starts to come up short. Specifically, when a smaller screen is divided to show, say, both plotter and radar data, the lack of space coupled with the avalanche of information becomes problematic.
Another sensible way to use a small plotter is in conjunction with paper charts. Those sailing on the West Coast or Down East in New England’s fog-bound waters understand how quickly landmarks can disappear. A small dedicated plotter will ease the transition from sailing in clear weather to being swallowed up in pea soup.
Sizing up the load
Sailors who spend days or weeks at a time away from shore power face energy management issues. This is doubly true for small-boat sailors who may have trouble increasing battery and/or generating capacity. So it’s important to look at the energy appetite of a networked plotter, radar, AIS and sounder before making a purchasing decision. Consumption for a larger plotter may run to 4 amps per hour or more at 12VDC. Over 24 hours this adds up to 100 AH—more than many modern refrigeration systems consume. Those looking to save power might consider running a small stand-alone plotter in good visibility, only switching to a larger MFD when navigation becomes more demanding.
In any case, before committing to any new navigation system, conduct a simple energy audit and figure out how much power in watts or amp-hours the new gear will consume. Note whether your existing electrical system can meet these requirements. If you come up short, a small energy-efficient stand-alone plotter may not be a perfect solution, but it is a practical one.
1. Garmin 546 ($899)
The popular 546 has evolved into an all-in-one plotter with built-in charts of U.S. coastal waters and the Bahamas. The unit also has a card slot for enhanced BlueChart g2 Vision cartography and a port for NMEA 2000 networking. The GPS receiver is WAAS enabled, and there’s a bright VGA screen that’s easy to read in bright sunlight. The unit also comes in an “s” version that includes an effective dual-frequency sounder.
2. Lowrance Elite 5M ($570)
Lowrance is popular among fisherman, but its Elite 5M is also a good entry-level stand-alone plotter for those with small sailboats. It comes with a handy quickrelease bracket that allows the unit to be easily removed and stowed below. The compact waterproof case, straightforward menu, button and toggle control panel, and the easy-to-read screen make it a very user-friendly plotter. With a Navionics Gold micro SD card covering all US and Canadian coastal waters included, it offers a lot of bang for the buck.
3. Raymarine a65 ($849)
Raymarine’s new compact a65 LED plotter, with its 5.7-inch screen, can be bracket- or flush-mounted and features a dual-core processor and WAAS-enabled GPS. The touch-and-swipe screen is a departure from the traditional dial-andkeypad approach and will surely appeal to tablet and smartphone users. The a65 can network with a full line-up of Raymarine gear. Those with small electrical systems will appreciate its low 0.75-amp draw, even with the screen at full brightness.
4. Si-Tex EC 5 ($500)
The 5-inch LCD screen on this bargain priced plotter is bright, and though not quite as crisp as other units with VGA screens, it is up to the task. Si-Tex wisely assumes that most customers won’t be crossing oceans or sailing to every corner of North America, so they offer buyers a choice of one free C-Map Max chart portfolio. These highly detailed digital charts cover a specific region, and if you need additional coverage, extra portfolios retail for about $180 each.
5. Standard Horizon CP 190i ($599) pictured above
The 190i displays easy-to-read C-Map charts and is equipped with a 50-channel WAAS-enabled GPS that locates the cursor on a bright LCD display. It comes with an internal antenna and a port for plugging in an optional external antenna. The key pad and control knob make display selection and setup an easy menudriven process. Dedicated “mark,” “route” and “info” keys represent additional user-appreciated features.