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The First Rule of Boating
Navigation displays for the rest of us
Patchy Fog

Tools and more info

The Importance of Practicing MOB Drills and Crew Training
Tools for coastal navigation
What is the meaning of Zulu time?
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Top 10 Online Boating Resources
Top 10 Challenging Cruising Waters in the Northeast

Computers for Navigation

Navigation displays for the rest of us

by Alex Blackwell

Inputting coordinates into the Panasonic Toughbook using the touchscreen.
My introduction to charts took place in Ireland when I was in my early teens. The charts were (and still are today) reproduced from British Admiralty plates dating back to the late 1800s. I spent two summers puttering around in a small motor dinghy learning to correlate what I saw with what was on the chart. I even carried a lead line and a long poled collection net so I could make my own secret annotations for future shell-fishing forays. Later I was given the ‘onerous’ task of breaking in the engine on our new little speedboat – 50 hours needed to be logged on the engine before my father was allowed to open her up properly. This ‘chore’ fell on my ‘poor’ young shoulders, and I spent weeks exploring in sheer bliss.

GPS and chart plotters were not even a glint in someone’s eye back then. Yes, there was the occasional sputnik sighting, and the first computers had been built. I learned machine code that semester and actually wrote a program for a calculator that could add and subtract.

Now everything has gone way beyond what even the writers of the early Star Trek episodes could possibly have imagined. We have computers everywhere and in everything. Have you ever been to a really tricked out yacht and lusted over the large displays in the cockpit? Yes, this is surely something I for one have lusted over for years. Particularly now that my eyesight is not quite what it once was and a bigger screen is really becoming a necessity, I have been pouring over the literature collected at the boat shows and visiting retail websites. But, “wow”, “ohmygoodness” and “ouch” are about the only expressions that come to mind when I see the sticker price for one of these 11-13 inch beauties.

A few years ago we discovered and subsequently publicized in magazines such as Cruising World the free raster and vector charts available from NOAA ( Ever since then we have been using these charts on a PC together with a $20 GPS mouse as our primary electronic navigation resource. Yes, we still always have and always will have paper charts out in the cockpit as we've been subject to loss of power on two occasions. But the S57 ENC vector charts have proven to be indispensable for planning and the RNC raster charts (scanned from paper charts) we find preferable for approaches or more detailed viewing. Unfortunately, as yet neither library is complete, but hopefully NOAA will receive the necessary funding to resume adding charts. We also like to correlate what's on the screen with visual reference marks as well as paper charts because there are occasions when one of the three does not corroborate the other two. Safety is our main concern.

Wireless networked tablet PC in operation. Bright daylight viewable touchscreen makes it easy.

One of our biggest challenges initially was keeping our precious laptop PC dry while having it out in the cockpit. Secondary to that but not by far was difficulty viewing the screen in daylight. We came up with ingenious combinations like a framing a hood over the laptop and covering our head and the whole shebang with a towel to block out the sun – not a pretty sight. If the plan was to use the laptop as a stand-alone navigation device, as we have now done for several years, then a waterproof, daylight viewable PC would have to be the tool of choice. We searched far and wide for a low cost daylight viewable monitor we could plug in and watch all day and night. This was a quandary until a friend showed us a tablet PC he was using for racing. This we had to check out. As it turned out, this led us to two realistic and totally viable options that are alternatives to dedicated displays.

Panasonic’s Toughbook CF-19 is one such beast. Though it is priced comparably with dedicated displays at around $3,500, it is a very nice and powerful computer built to military specifications and has a touch screen to boot. The screen can swivel and fold down converting the computer into a tablet PC.

Add the very reasonably priced Fugawi Marine ENC charting software (~ $200), a $20 GPS mouse, and the free NOAA charts to the Toughbook and you have complete system in your cockpit. The bottom line is that you would not need the expensive navigation system if all you are looking for is the GPS charting.

We just did a 500+ mile cruise using this configuration and were very happy with the results. We used the vector charts for planning and routing over greater distances as they do load more slowly, and then switched to the raster charts for greater detail. We kept the computer under the dodger where it was viewable and yet out of the way. We also moved it to the helm position if the helms-person wanted it for tight navigation.
If the Toughbook can withstand military use, it can do very well onboard. Here we are using the main unit as the primary under the protection of the dodger. Otherwise we keep this unit safely stowed below decks and bring up only the tablet repeater on deck.
Let’s say you already have a computer which you are happy to have on board and have loaded your software and charts on it, or you have a navigation system which can interface with a PC such as Furuno or Navico offer. Then you will not want to expose your computer to the elements, as we have previously had to do. Rather than going for the costly permanently installed dedicated display, it would be well worth looking at the Panasonic CF-08 tablet. Like its bigger brother it is water proof, dust proof, shock proof and built to military specs. As with the CF-19, the CF-08 is daylight viewable and has an easily used touch screen. It also has a handy and comfortable carrying strap across the back so it stays put in your hand. It even has a soft keypad you can call up onto the screen if you need to type in text. We did add a lanyard so we could tether it if needed as we heeled over – no need to risk losing the little marvel overboard.

Using the ‘Remote Desktop’ feature built into Microsoft Windows XP Pro and wi-fi, the tablet can take over the functionality of the PC and become a remote display. Leaving the PC safe and dry at the navigation station or in another location, you can take the tablet anywhere you please. All the software and functionality your PC has is thus literally at your finger tips. Call up a chart, plot a course, view your radar display, play iTunes, you name it.

One interesting aspect of the Panasonic Toughbook that we found is that it has yet to be targeted at the marine industry. To find out more about these products or to learn where you might purchase them go to and type Toughbook in the search field. You can also buy a reconditioned one at almost half price at

Toughbook closed and acting as a wireless server for the handheld repeater unit. Note the GPS mouse with red light between the two systems.


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