Marine Gear: GPS, Chart Plotters, Boats and You

Since the advent of the Lowrance “green box,” marine electronics have boomed into the fishing and boating community with a resounding “BANG” in the last couple of decades. Everything from remote controlled trolling motors and LCD and LED fish finders and other electronics, to colored TV monitors that help us to spy on our finny friends. One of the big advances though is the GPS (global positioning systems) that we have today. Going from cumbersome units that you would have to manually insert latitude and longitude into to reference your position, to today’s modern units, that at the touch of a button opens new routes and course planning to make you’re boating and fishing more of a pleasure than a chore.

One of the more recent electronic devices to be welcomed into our boating world is the chart plotter. Chart plotters were just about unheard of a decade ago. Now they are a must have item for the serious boat/fisherman. Chart plotters are not only incredibly accurate maps that can show boaters their precise location but they are also becoming extremely easy to use and incorporate features and information that even the novice boater can understand and learn to operate. Basically a chart plotter is a GPS unit coordinated with map. With today’s modern technology, chart plotters can be programmed with computer software to be able to give you a map of your desired recreational lake. This chart will include bottom contours, reefs and islands—anything that heretofore you would have had to use a paper map for.

These functions now can all be done at the touch of a button and all while watching your progress on a color defined monitor. GPS or satellite navigation operates by sending and receiving signals to any number of satellites from as little as three to as many as 20 or more satellite that are circling the globe out in space, and then cross referencing these signals in your chart plotter in much the same way that forest rangers would get a “fix” by cross referencing three or more different points from forest fire lookout outposts. By intersecting the reference lines, you can literally put an X on the fire. GPS does the same thing electronically for your boat and/or vehicle.

Chart plotters electronically put an X on your chart screen showing you your position at all times. It will help you to navigate around obstacles and guide you to the best fishing spots should you so choose. Although many boat owners now days have GPS chart plotters on their boats, most users barely approach the power and/or features of these modern navigation systems. Most boat operators will use them in their simplest form for navigation. They will turn them on and use them to merely pilot their boat or simply use them as a sonar device for depth and structure. Many users will locate their boats position and then use the chart to navigate from one location to another by watching the chart and “seeing” where they are headed. That is all well and good but to get the utmost use out of a GPS chart plotter, learning some of its other functions will make it go a long way in being one of the most valuable tools you can have on board.

One of the first ways you can begin to get more out of your chart plotter is to make use of its capability of setting “waypoints.” When you use a plotter in this way it is a simple matter to store waypoints of the many different fish holding structures or other locations you would want to return to at a later date and then program them into you chart plotter for use at another time. Many guides use this feature to store “secret” fishing spots in their chart plotters in much the way we used to pencil in an X on a paper map. These locations can then to be returned to again and again within an approximate 10 to 15 feet of accuracy to be fished at will. Another feature of chart plotters and GPS systems that should get more use than it does is the “tracking” feature. When this feature is used properly, it will draw a line on your chart showing the locations in a line that you have traveled during your excursions. This feature is especially good at night when, if you have traveled in a number of directions and wish to return to port in the darkness, you can simply put your boat on a reverse course and follow your tracking line all the way back to where you began on any given venture.

Finally, you can use your chart plotter to set “routes.” Routes are another form of waypoints that can be used as “sign posts” to lead you through and around areas by going from one “signpost” to another until you reach your desired waypoint. By routing your boat properly you can travel from one waypoint to another around shoals, reefs, underwater obstacles or any of a number of hazards that can be awaiting the unsuspecting boat operator. Most modern chart plotters have the capability of storing thousands of waypoints and giving you the capability of naming them or numbering them for future references.

Some of the more advanced chart plotters can even give you tidal information, marina features, including whether or not the marina has fuel capabilities or restaurant facilities and some will even give you phone numbers to the local hospital in the area of the marina. From a safety stand point, most GPS/chart plotters have a “man overboard” feature on them that when selected will instantly store that location in its memory until manually removed. When connected with a special marine DSC radio, this position can be broadcast automatically to other boaters in the area.

These modern chart plotters can be interfaced with other marine electronics such as, radar, auto pilots, and any number of other electronics that might be used in the course of navigating a boat. Many units are “combination units” that multi task. So, if it is the latest in electronics that you would like to outfit your boat with, start with a new chart plotting unit and “see” for yourself what you have been missing.