The glass-bottomed electronic chart

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Even though electronic charts have been around for a few years now, for many of us they are still high on the gee whiz scale. Somehow, it’s still fascinating to see your boat move, directed by input from a GPS receiver, along an electronic chart as a voyage unfolds.

Electronic-charting companies continue to add new sets of features to their products. One of the latest of these is an option to display a 3D image of bottom topography. An example of this is the side-by-side chart and 3D view from the Cap?n program, above.
   Image Credit: Courtesy Nautical Technologies

While we remain convinced that voyagers need to learn the manual method of plotting a vessel's position on a paper chart (and to practice the technique as often as possible), it's also true that an electronic chart/GPS combo can be a great help and assurance to a busy navigator. And the electronic chart crowd continues to increase the coolness factor of their products. Last year Maptech debuted its photo charts, electronic charts and aerial photos side by side, giving you the chart view and an overhead view of what the coastline, topography, and manmade structures really look like.

This year at the Miami Boat Show in February, both Maptech and MaxSea were showing off chart software with the ability to display 3D images of bathymetry, or bottom topography. Nautical Technologies, which offers The Cap'n electronic chart and navigation program, began offering a 3D option, called Sea 3D, to its software package last year.

Another interesting development is Nobeltec's introduction of vector electronic charts for use with electronic charting programs running on laptop and desktop computers. These charts, called Passport World Charts by Nobeltec, are compiled by a company called Transas that got its start in St. Petersburg (Russia, not Florida) and is now a U.K.-based company. Vector charts (as opposed to raster charts) from big-name electronic chart companies like C-Map and Navionics have been around for many years, of course. But vector products have traditionally been used by chart plotters and dedicated chart units, not with software designed to run on a PC.

Let's look at the 3D charts first. These three-dimensional computer views are immediately captivating. To see a boat symbol floating above the undersea canyons and ridges that normally are hidden by an opaque shroud of water is exciting and fun. You could almost get a sense of vertigo looking at the boat floating above the topography.

For this 3D view, Maptech and The Cap'n use a side-by-side display that allow you to see the electronic chart in one window and the 3D bathymetric view in the other window. Both of these products use the same green wire-frame method for drawing bottom features. MaxSea took a slightly different approach. Instead of a uniform green wire frame, the MaxSea software drapes the raster chart data on the bottom contours. The result is a 3D view of the raster chartworthy of a high wow factor.

You can see how this type of bottom view would be of interest to fisherman, both commercial and recreational. Seeing where your fishing gear is in relation to bottom features should be helpful in catching more fish and avoiding costly gear snags. Sailors are not as concerned with what's on the bottom as long as there is enough water under the keel to prevent running aground. The time that sailors are particularly interested in what the bottom looks like is when they are in closesay, entering a harbor or picking up a mooring. None of the 3D charting products seemed to be set up to deliver this microcosmic view.

Still, this option can't help but be intriguing to mariners. While not an essential navigational tool, the ability to see a 3D image of the bottom contours does go a little bit further in giving mariners a more detailed view of their surroundings. And, for navigators, having a bit more information is usually not a bad thing.

Meanwhile, Nobeltec, which produces the Visual Navigation Suite electronic chart and navigation software, has a deal with the vector chart maker Transas to distribute a line of vector charts that can be used with Nobeltec's software. These Passport World charts are, as their name suggests, an extensive catalog of charts5,800 charts worldwide. Transas started producing vector charts in the early 1990s for the commercial shipping market. In the interim, the company has become one of the largest suppliers of vector charts and has an extensive inventory of charts.

Vector-based electronic charts, like those produced by Transas, C-Map, and Navionics, are the preferred format for the future of electronic charts for a variety of reasons, among them the ability to manipulate the vector database to provide the user with capabilities like depth alarms, and the much smaller file size for vector charts. For example, according to Larry DeGraff of Transas, the company's 5,800 vector charts take up only 450 megabytes, allowing the entire chart inventory to fit on one CD.

Finally, Maptech has recently launched a web site that it calls Mapserver. This site allows you to view and print out nautical charts and topographic maps of any area in the U.S. According to Maptech you can even e-mail charts and maps to a friend. For quick trip and route planning, this could be a valuable service for mariners interested in getting quick coastal chart information.For any of those mariners who think that the wonders of marine electronics have liberated them from the need for good old-fashioned manual navigation skills, the experience of several hundred people on Friday, February 18, 2000, in Miami Beach might be instructive. On that Friday the Miami Boat Show was in full swing at the Miami Beach Convention Center, a huge, multilevel expanse of exhibition space a few blocks west of the famous strip of sand that gives Miami Beach its name and its attitude. Little did anyone at the show that day realize a full-scale simulation of the unpredictable nature of the marine environment awaited them.

To better facilitate browsing through the latest products, most of the marine electronics exhibitors are usually located in one large room off the convention center's main floor. Thus, due to this purposeful concentration, the electronics room is jampacked with an exciting array of flashing screens and sleek boxes. For an aficionado of radar, GPS, electronic charting, HF radio, satcom, depthsounders, and the rest, it's a wonderful place. Where else could you find such a range of cutting-edge equipment, along with a crew of knowledgeable, enthusiastic salespeople, technicians, and engineers ready and willing to answer any question?

It happened while I was standing with a salesperson and listening to his description of the key features of a new, bright-screen, multicolor radar. The power for the entire building died in a heartbeat, without so much as a flicker from the lights or a death rattle from a failing transformer.

One second the room was filled with screens and lights and buttons of every size, color, and configuration, all aglow and drawing the attention of showgoers like a back porch light snags moths on a summer night. The very next second we were plunged into darkness. Every screen, every button, every LED indicator went dark, along with the convention center's ceiling lights and all other forms of illumination. A sigh of surprise from the crowd was followed first by restrained laughter and later by mutterings of irritation.

Standing in the gloom -- luckily, abundant south Florida sunlight entering through the outside doors did lighten the room somewhat -- it struck me that all the marvelous and useful technology surrounding us had been hit squarely in the Achilles' heel.

It's a fact of physics that without power, the best electronic gear in the world can't help you much. And losing electrical power is, unfortunately, a possibility on board a voyaging boat. You can't always count on having your electronic gear working at all times in all situations; you can't even count on a steady flow of juice when on land in Miami Beach with the full resources of a power utility on tap! (To be fair, the power was back on in less than 20 minutes.)

Telling this story is certainly not meant as a recommendation to turn off all your electronics and never use them again. Given the tremendous effectiveness of modern marine electronics, that would clearly be a bizarre overreaction to an isolated event.

However, an account of this outage can serve as a reminder to the voyager that he or she should be hard-nosed and realistic about the need to be adaptable when it comes to running a vessel. After all, as the captain or navigator of a voyaging boat, your knowledge and skills represent the ultimate fallback system. You're the one who must bring the vessel and its crew safely to port.

By Ocean Navigator