Eventually you'll be able to get all the charts as PDF files and they are easy to deal with. They are not all availablejust yet.
You'll need a chart software tool and here the choices expand quickly. The raster based systems work
the best with about any old computer you might have. The vector ENC charts do require a bit more RAM and CPU power
to render the screens but have the advantage of being seamless and you end up with a user persepctive of just one map instead of 1500 map files you have to know how to switch between. Then again in a day you can't sail through more than a dozen charts under sail power
so you figure it out as you go.
You want to be able to do with them what you can do with paper charts and plotting tools. Just something that can view charts is not really all that useful unless you can point and locate lat/long and create a line and see the course and distance, after that you may want a real time position of your boat
on the map by connecting a GPS
, then maybe the ability to create a route
with way points and based on the position generate a new course to navigate point to point and indicate position as you go computing the time you'll arrive.
Maybe leave a "bread crumb" trail on the chart as well as you sail along so you have a record
of where you were. Overlay a radar
display or a weather
FAX, plot AIS
signals from large commercial
vessles in the area, locate all the marinas
, plus figure out the road into town from an obscure anchorage. Display depths in 3D. The list goes on and on.
The level of this ability gets more expensive as you go up the food
chain of software. Frankly, I have not found a free application that really is worth the time to fool with. Ones I've tried I think are not easy to use and not something you can really use to the full benefit of an electronic chart. Then again you do have to make use of all the fetures you buy and some may not be anything you would actually use.
There are basic ones under $100 and expensive ones over $500. You'll see a poll
on this web site of who likes what.
Do a GOOGLE
search on "Naviagtion Software" and you will get a lot to look at. It's worth looking at a half dozen examples and you'll learn all the buzz words. You may find a few trial versions as well.
Saving traveled courses, creating routes with way points and displaying current
position I think are the basics to insist on. I never let the computer drive the auto pilot but I could.
Managing how you switch from one chart to another is the other difficult problem to figure out . For the "best looking charts" the ENC charts are hands down the best even though it's the same information as the raster charts. You also have to learn how to use electronic charts as it is another way of looking at things. They can give you a false sense of thinking you can gather perfect information when none exists. They also could blink off.
I find I use my software mostly at home or on the hook. It's a great planning tool and in the end i compute out the courses and save off the routes and just use it as a display under way. I find it helps me load my head
with what I need to know. I can play out various ideas of what if the wind
changes this way or that way how tight could I sail. I also print small 8 1/2 by 11 chart sets for each route and use them as much as anything under way. I want them in case I lose the display.