Connecting dots on map easy as GPS

Innovations: Charting and navigating are now simpler tasks thanks to a hand-held global positioning satellite and a number of other technological advances.

October 07, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

There was a time when unwieldy paper charts, parallel rules and stubby little pencils were essential aids to navigation. But they may be going the way of the sextant - off to the museums - what with all the electronic gadgets and gizmos available to a modern boater.

The same technology that guided missiles and artillery shells to faraway targets during the Persian Gulf War now can help boaters - even the ones in small, open cockpit fishing boats - plot their positions, chart their courses and navigate safely home.

"The selection of electronics available today is three, four times what it was just five years ago," says Phil Mitchell of Electronic Marine on 4th Street in the Eastport section of Annapolis. "I have a lot of customers with small boats, and by that I mean under 30 feet, buying more and more toys because they are cheaper and smaller than ever."

The hand-held global positioning satellite, a staple of backpackers as well as boaters, is among the more prosaic gadgets in the array. There are 2- and 3-inch-wide display screens that use the GPS system to show boaters where they are, where they've been and where they're going. There are CDs loaded with layered charts that can be peeled away in the same manner as the visible man and visible woman overlays in old encyclopedias.

"It's all a matter of what features you want and how much you're willing to spend," says Mitchell.

Revolution in boating

All the gizmos are on display at the United States Sailboat Show in Annapolis, which closes Monday, and the United States Powerboat Show, from Thursday through Sunday in the same space at the City Dock downtown.

It is the advances in computer chips and the ability to turn once- bulky equipment into devices small enough to fit in the average pocket that have driven the revolution in boat electronics.

"What's happened is, we've got a wider range of products available, and as we find ways to shrink things down, we get into the lower end of the market," says Randy Morris of Annapolis Marine Electronics on 2nd Street in the Eastport section of town.

Not long ago, a hand-held GPS cost at least $500. Now, $100 "gets you a really cool hand-held GPS," Morris says. "And $300 will get a fixed unit for the dashboard or the navigation station."

The best part of miniaturization, says Brian Vlad, product support manager for Simrad, a Norwegian marine electronics firm with outlets in the United States, is "we can make two or three or more pieces of useful equipment and combine it all into one box. The reductions in size has opened up a whole new market for these products."

Charts more dimensional

Boaters can buy no-frills chart- plotters to determine their courses, chart-plotters with radar to pick out targets in front of them, such as buoys or other vessels, or chart-plotters with fish-finders, global positioning satellites or with any number of combinations.

They can load charts from CDs into their laptops for onboard use. And one CD full of charts is a lot more convenient and cheaper than the paper charts that have been in use for centuries.

"A paper chart might be $13, and you would spend hundreds of dollars for enough charts to cover the Chesapeake Bay from the C&D Canal to Norfolk," says Morris. "You can do that on one CD for less than $200."

The layered charts, known as vector charts, allow boaters to see as much or as little as they want to plot their courses.

They can show depth contours, navigational aids, land masses, geographic names, buoys, cable crossings, mooring areas, bridges and more. Or they can be stripped away a layer at a time to eliminate the inevitable clutter on charts of busy waterways.

Just in case the chart-plotters don't tell a boater everything, manufacturers are developing forward-looking sonar that shows the water depths ahead, or to the sides, or whether there are hidden obstructions under the water.

None of that would be much good, of course, if you couldn't make out what's on the screen, so marine electronics companies have developed high-definition screens that can be easily read despite the glare of the sun.

"Sunlight viewable products have become the big buzz word," says Vlad.

Advances in digital systems have expanded the capabilities of VHF radios so they function almost as a telephone. It's known as DSC, or digital selective calling.

Anyone who's been on Chesapeake Bay with a VHF radio tuned to the right channel has heard boaters calling bridge tenders and marinas or picked up the conversations of watermen as they work their crab pots. With DSC, those conversations can be kept private, as if they were on cell phones.

Individual radios are assigned digital codes so boaters can make calls in the same manner as they would a telephone.

Eventually, boaters will be able to send data and fax materials through their VHF radios.

"I know what you're thinking," says Vlad. "Just what I need, more communications, more gimmicks when what I wanted was to get away from things for a while. But as a safety feature, you may want to have a VHF radio at least."

"A boater in trouble can send a distress call on a VHF radio, and the accompanying DSC number "will tell people who you are," Morris says. "Combine that with the GPS and they know where you are."

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