A powerboat captain asked us about how long it would take to get from Anacortes where we are currently to Deception Pass, the channel running between Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands. It’s one of those passes where timing is critical unless you have a big engine with lots of power. Currents run through at ripping speeds and they turn with the tides in less than a half an hour. If your timing is off you could struggle to get through and it could even be dangerous.

When we took up trucking, I told Kevin, “I can’t wait until I know the US like I know my own town” and it didn’t take more than 2 years to accomplish this. This really wasn’t my desire when I came into boat navigation but I’ve discovered my aptitude for maps, directions and electronic navigational aides. Kevin is more old school and shoots fixes which I have yet to learn. We did both learn this as part of our sailing certification but I’ve pretty much forgotten this part and instead rely on our electronics. It does make me happy that he knows though and a in-depth refresher course for me isn’t a bad idea at all!

When we are on the road in our big truck, Google maps is still my favorite electronic trip-planning tool. When we get a 2200 mile-run now however, it’s almost 2nd nature for me to do a lot of the routing in my head because I do know the US pretty well. From LA to Columbus, OH I know we have the option of 3 different routes, which freeways/state highways they are and which places we’ll switch drivers depending on the time of day we pickup and deliver. We also look at weather and wind and try to avoid any impending nasty storms if possible. For these we use Wind Alert and Weather Channel apps. Plus driving is something we are all familiar with so mapping on roads is pretty straight forward.

Marine navigation is something altogether different. There are no well-marked roads and the surface beneath you is constantly moving and changing. Weather, tides and land mass makes trip-planning a much more complex task. The first question is, “what is the weather/wind going to do?” And then, “is the tide coming or going? Which direction will it flow through channels we might pass through and how strong is the current? How high are the waves supposed to be? How long will it take and how many miles? Where are the shallow spots/hidden rocks to avoid? Where are the channel markers?” and the list goes on.

The best weather forecaster by far is NOAA, although I use the weather channel’s app for a quick look-see. NOAA’s marine forecast has a lot of depth built in that includes weather, wind direction and strength, wave height, barometric pressures, etc. For the wind we do use Wind Alert too however, we have found it is much better at wind predictions out perhaps 1-2 days but not so much after this.

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 5.49.02 PM

One of our favorite tools is the DeepZoom website. This handy tool shows tidal flow, current direction and its strength of flow for the narrow channels. It is one of the coolest things we have available for navigation. And yet the powerboat captain we spoke with had never heard of it. So, this is me, giving a big plug for DeepZoom in hopes the word will get out. Great website! They have an app for the Windows phone but not for the iPhone yet.

Deep Zoom
Deep Zoom, control the dates and # of days on the right side of the website.

Skipper is our current charting app and we have learned a bit more about using it this year. We came to own it out of necessity last year when our learning curve in cruising was pretty steep. I needed something I could look at while behind the wheel and it fit the bill for a relatively inexpensive app. It’s a pretty good program and we use it for route planning since finally learning how to create routes. Last year it was so new, learning all the details of its use didn’t happen.

Now we have Active Captain overlaid on Skipper, as well as topographical/trail maps for land locations. It also has a simple weather feature and good tide indicator showing in graph form tide height and dates/times. Dynamic charting is easy, changing from one level of detail to another with the zoom-in feature on most phones and tablets. A yearly subscription includes all the US charts and a very few Canadian ones., However, they don’t provide any international charts. Besides doing quick waypoints and plotting routes it will also record your route while underway using your phone GPS.

Teal line is intended route
Green line is our actual path. Recording got a late start.

Active Captain is a charting and cruising guide allowing members to comment on their experience with a destination. They provide good info about a location such as, holding ground, wind protection, position, approach, typical tide, internet access, pets, shore access, scenery/shopping, as well as ratings based on member experience. While some of the info we have found is old, most is good accurate knowledge to have when you’ve never been to a place before.

Active Captain
Active Captain Screenshot

A couple apps we discovered last season and enjoy using all the time as well as for cruising are MarineTraffic an AIS (Automatic Identification System) Vessel Tracking app which gives all kinds of cool information about the boats around you and TidesNearMe which as it suggests, reports on the tides.

Marine Traffic
Marine Traffic Screenshot. The colors indicate the type/class of vessel and the arrow indicates movement while the square means it is moored.
Marine Traffic Shanghai
Marine Traffic is fun anywhere near waterways. Here is Shanghai the busiest port in the world.
Tides Near Me
Tides Near Me Screenshot

When I was planning our trip from Port Townsend across the Straights of Juan de Fuca it took a couple of hours of plotting the timing and many more hours of checking and double-checking my data in my mind and with Kevin to make certain it would be successful. The actual trip went according to plan however one thing I did learn was the swells coming down the Straight from the ocean, coupled with the wind makes for a bit of discomfort as they hit the outgoing tidal waters of the inlet. We encountered 3-4′ waves with little space between and the ride was a bit bumpy for about an hour or so getting through.

I must begin to work in more paper chart planning so I know them both. Electronics are always subject to failure of some sort and it’s probably not good to be so reliant on them. Kevin also has a system he’s studied about for years from listening to other cruisers so we will eventually end up with a dedicated computer that runs only our navigational software. We’ll have a GPS module and maybe someday we’ll splurge on auto-pilot! For now we take turns behind the wheel.

Route planning is getting easier for me as time goes by. As in trucking navigation, one thing we always feel concern about, “are we going to find a spot to anchor or a buoy to catch when we get there?” and “What is plan B?”. This is just something you can’t really predict. It did feel remarkable to be asked by another boat captain about navigating a familiar waterway. I wonder if he’s new or does everyone struggle through making sure to get it right?


3 thoughts on “Navigation

  1. You most likely know about OpenCpn, a free chart proram for the laptop (and Android). All US charts are free and can be updated from withing the program. Has support for AIS and just about any other feature one could think of. Works without cell coverage. You do need a GPS hooked to your lappy. Route planning with OpenCpn is a joy.


    1. Skipper was actually my answer to our navigation beginnings last year and I have been working on learning it more this year but it isn’t the long term solution for us for sure. We just acquired a laptop which we dedicated to OpenCPN and have downloaded it and have a GPS attached to it. I have perused it some but haven’t figured out how to use it entirely and even with the GPS can’t find our boat on the charts. We do have all the US and Canadian charts now and that’s happy-making! This actually was something Kevin wanted to get and now that we have it I need to learn how to use. Is there some documentation that would help me learn that you could point me towards?


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