How to FishMarine Electronics

Chartplotter Navigation Tips

You may know how to get your boat from point A to point B, but these tips will help you do so faster, safer, and better than before.

Captains with years of experience under their belts may know all about advanced seamanship, what boat safety equipment to choose and use, and how to get in and out of a slip in the wind, but harnessing technology isn’t always the forte of the grizzled – especially when learning something new. If your phone often has you stumped and you go to your kids for advice on how to use the computer, there’s a good chance your chartplotter also holds plenty of secrets waiting to be unlocked. These three tips should help.

  1. Steer from a steering screen, not a chart screen. If you’re looking at a boat icon on a chart and trying to keep that icon moving in the right direction, you’re doing it the wrong way. The boat icon isn’t a proportional representation (if it were, it would be too small to see) and you may need to veer five, 10, or even 15 degrees off-course before you can actually see the change on-screen much less react to it. That chart is for locating your waypoint or destination — not actually running to it.

If you’ve been steering while looking at a view of the chart, after setting a waypoint, go back into your chartplotter menu and look for a steering screen display option. Often it will simply be named “steer,” though different manufacturers do use different terms and you may see “nav,” “navigate,” or something similar. Usually, it displays either a digital compass or a highway-like image, either of which allows you to see your heading in increments right down to the degree. Often there will be a mark indicating your ideal course and a second mark showing your actual course. When the two are lined up, you’re steering in the perfect direction. Steering from this screen, you can hold a far more accurate course. Still, we have to note that many people feel comfortable seeing that little icon on the chart. Fine. Split your screen so the chart is on one side and the steering screen is on the other – just don’t keep trying to steer from the chart, or you’ll never run straight and narrow.

A split-screen showing the chart at left and a steering screen to right is favored by many people; the (added) red arrows point to the marks indicating the course you’ve plotted, and the actual one you’re steering. Keep the two together to run an ideal course.

  1. Zoom in, and then zoom in some more. While it’s comforting to see land on that screen, in most cases zooming out to ranges measured in miles doesn’t do any more for you than give the overall view of your position. If you’re looking at depth readings, searching for a piece of fish-holding structure, or trying to keep your boat in a specific hotspot, it’s easy to be deceived so far as movement, distance, and direction. Zoom in to a matter of feet, however, and you’ll have a far easier time telling what’s going on.
This is over-emphasizing things a bit, but it gets the point across – the farther out you’re zoomed, the less precision you have as to exactly where your boat is.

Again, scale and relativity combined with your far over-sized boat icon are the culprits. Zoomed out to a mile-wide range it may appear like you’re about to reach the target, be it a contour curve or a wreck. Zoomed in to 1000-feet, it likely isn’t even on the screen yet. Similarly, when making drifts over a hotspot on a wide range your little boat icon may seem to pass right over top the waypoint. Yet when you zoom in, you might realize you haven’t even been coming close.

  1. Set your MFD to display north up, not course up. Sure, course up looks nifty. But those of us old enough to read paper charts (you do have a NOAA paper charts onboard as a back-up in case of electronics failure, don’t you?) know that you always use a north-up orientation, and you didn’t spin that chart around on the table or look at it upside-down while trying to navigate. Bottom line, the rotation of the chart introduces the potential for confusion as to which direction is what.
Is this boat heading north or south? In a north-up orientation, you can tell at a glance, but in a course-up orientation, you can’t.

You may notice that most boaters who have been around since chartplotters were black and white will always stick with north up, while it’s usually younger people or newbies who use course up – likely because no one ever taught them how to read an actual chart. And after a few seasons of use, those people become accustomed to a course up orientation. If you’re one of those folks, adjusting to the north up screen may take a bit of time. But once your brain gets in synch with it, you’ll discover that in the long run, it’s far less confusing.

Will putting these tips to use make you an expert at chartplotter navigation? Of course not. But utilizing them will absolutely, positively help make you a better boater – and get you three steps closer to old salt status.

Get more great boating information and tips from Lenny Rudow on BD.

Lenny Rudow
Lenny Rudow …has been a writer and editor in the marine field for over two decades, and has authored seven books. He is currently the Angler in Chie...