I like maps. I also like knowing where I am. I’ve been lost only two times in my memory, and by lost I mean disoriented, having no idea which direction is which or where I was in relationship to the known surroundings. Once was exiting the Metro in Paris amidst tall buildings and not being able to orient myself for about 5 minutes and the other time was sailing in the fog off Tofino as the wind kept shifting. I had the chart plotter zoomed in and was following the wind so when it came time to tack I turned the wrong way and actually gybed. I am still a bit freaked out by that.
So how do I normally keep track of where I am out on the water? Well, besides the trusty old Mark I eyeball, Never for Ever has a selection of tools aboard to help keep us going in the right direction.
First and foremost we have charts. As I said, I like maps and I would likely have the charts even if it wasn’t a legal requirement (it no longer is in the U.S.). Charts in Canada are issued by the Canadian Hydrographic Service and conform to their standards. They are also available electronically, but more on that later. Canadian charts are a standard size and come in a variety of scales from large scale overviews to small scale details of bays or inlets. And the price is pretty standard too: $20 a chart.
I specify Canadian charts, because the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) who are responsible for the American charts provide their data for free and let private companies provide printed charts. Thus you can download the NOAA’s U.S charts in a number of formats including pdfs and ENC files and load them into your devices or print them on your own.
The most important chart — and often the most undervalued — is Chart 1 : Symbols, Abbreviations and Terms. Not actually a chart, this is a key to all the symbols and terms used in the other charts…because it’s helpful to know if that rock that is shown on the paper chart is awash or under 20′ of water. Sadly we don’t spend enough time with this comprehensive booklet and often are just guessing about what some of the symbols specifically mean.
Our cruising ground is from Victoria to Port MacNeill so I went ahead on purchased the charts I thought I would need; all in all it was almost $1000. I managed to use about 80% of them last summer. Here is the list of Canadian charts we currently carry.
|3606||Strait Juan de Fuca||1:110,000|
|3462||Sidney & San Juans||1:80,000|
|3463||Gulf Is & Vancouver||1:80,000|
|3547||Queen Charlotte east||1:40,000|
|3548||Queen Charlotte central||1:40,000|
|3549||Queen Charlotte west||1:40,000|
I did pick up a nice overview of the San Juan Islands (in the U.S.) as well. And the last 4 are actually chart books with multiple charts and scales to cover their specified region. This saves us a lot of money (only $80 each) and space.
Last summer we turned off all the electronics for a day and navigated purely by chart. It was a great exercise and something I should probably do more often. Relying on our electronics is a bad habit to get into.
Never for Ever has an older Raymarine E80 chartplotter. This is a device with a screen that displays electronic charts and is hooked up to a dedicated GPS unit so it shows the boat’s position and heading.
Technically I think these units are actually MFDs (multi-function devices). In addition to showing our position, it displays our COG (course over ground) and SOG (speed over ground — as opposed to the speed through the water which is what the knotmeter displays). It also displays the data from the radar. We can plot out our course in advance using a system of way points and it can chart our progress and warn us when we are deviating from our course. It also plots and stores the actual tracks and associated info like speeds and times. All in all a handy device and there are still a bunch of functions I have yet to explore.
The chartplotter came with Raymarine’s Platinum Charts for the PNW which has all sorts of other information like aerial views of certain places, 3D underwater topography and information about ports and features. But the standard charts are the workhorse and honestly the extra features are not something I use a lot.
While they are great devices, they’re not infallible. For example while heading to Tsehum last month, the electronic charts on our chartplotter showed an island in the middle of John Passage off Coal Island that did not exist. One should ALWAYS cross reference the chartplotter with what your eyes see and even better, what your paper charts tell you.
VHS with AIS
Our Standard Horizon Matrix GX2100 is a VHF radio that also has a AIS receiver (see here for more) which receives signals for boats equipped with AIS transponders and displays them on the chartplotter. This allows us to see the speed and course of big ships when we are out near the shipping lanes and, if we were out at sea, set up alarms to warn us of impending collisions.
As a back up to the eyeballs, the charts and the chartplotter I also have a collection of apps for my devices. I have the Navionics US & Canada, iNavX, Active Captain, as well as a number of other “free” navigation apps. I say “free” because while the U.S. provides elecrtronic charts for free, as we know Canada does not. So you end up paying for access to Canadian charts regardless.
I was lucky enough to buy the Navionics US & Canada for my iPhone for $5 many versions ago and so it still is capable of running on my original iPad in the 2X view. They have since changed the software to included a standalone iPad version but they charge around $50 for it. It makes sense; the iPhone version is of limited functionality but on the big screen of the iPad it is often better than my dedicated chartplotter. I have downloaded the charts from Alaska to Mexico and it makes a good planning tool for below decks. And the newer version on the iPhone has an autorouting function that allows you to select start and end points and then plots a route for you. While it isn’t something I am prepared to trust, it does give you a quick overview of distances and travel time.
While the graphics at 2X are less than excellent, the 9 inch screen makes using the app a breeze.
I also use Navionics to track our voyages and can email the Google-map compatible kml files to myself to then display on my websites for trip reports. I simply leave the iPad plugged into the 12v (the GPS is a huge battery suck and is only good for about 3 or 4 hours if I don’t plug it in) and hit start. That way I have the iPhone version available to double-check the chartplotter and to use for tides and currents (see below)— and of course, to take pictures with.
INavX gets rave reviews from some quarters and it’s ability to tie into your vessel’s instruments makes it a great choice as a chartplotter replacement. But at a $50 base price with more for the Canadian charts I just couldn’t see it as my go-to app.
Active Captain is a community-sourced cruising guide that has information on ports, anchorages and more. Sadly it has a bigger community on the east coast but it is getting better as more people contribute here in the PNW
Tides and Currents
Sunsail rates their charter areas on a scale of 0 to 3. 0 are beginner places like BVI’s with its line of site navigation and predictable winds. The PNW is rated as a 3 — the most difficult — mostly because of our tides and currents. There are several places around the Gulf Islands where the currents can get up to 7 or 8 knots or higher and tides often vary as much as 10 feet. If you don’t know how to predict and plan for these variances you will quickly find yourself in trouble.
The official guide is the Canadian Tides and Current Tables. These are issued new every year and show the predicted tides and currents bay date and time. The most common guide I believe is Ports & Passes. It includes U.S. and Canada and accounts for daylight Savings Time, something the official publication does not and is generally more comprehensive. Also an annual publication it retails for around $20 CDN—well worth the investment.
As I mentioned the tides are also displayed on the Navionics app, which is handy when quickly calculating rodes at an anchorage. But again, it is always best to double-check with the official guides.
The last tool in our where-are-we kit is a small collection of cruising guides. The main one is The Waggoner Cruising Guide ($24.95). This is again an annual publication, put out by the same people who produce Ports & Passes. It covers from Puget Sound to Alaska and includes the outside of Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii. It’s not necessary to buy one every year. I have had mine since 2013 although will likely replace it this year. And it is available every year for free as a pdf. Waggoner’s includes great information on ports and marina’s and is a great planning guide with details about things like transits through rapids and some of the straits and narrows. It doesn’t focus on anchorages but has plenty of information to get you started.
We also have a few of the Dreamspeaker books. We went on a flotilla to the Broughtons with authors Anne and Laurence Yeadon-Jones and picked up a few. They retail for around $50 though so collecting all six (seven with the independently published Puget Sound volume) is going to be a long term project. I find them helpful because they offer suggestions for anchoring locations and have hand drawn illustrations which makes coming into a strange bay or harbour much less nerve-wracking.
There are plenty of other guides available as well and some great books too, like the one we discovered late in the season last year: Best Anchorages of the Inside Passage: British Columbia’s South Coast From the Gulf Island to Beyond Cape Caution, 2nd Ed. Really helpful.
For me, if I do my homework and pay attention, I am in very little danger of getting lost or running into something I shouldn’t. But there is an old saying, “It’s not if you run aground, it’s when you run aground…” But the more tools I use, the less likely that is going to happen any time soon.