One of the questions we were asked constantly by cruisers and non-cruisers was, “How did you know where to go?” A legitimate question and one we had raised ourselves before we left to head south. How do cruisers get around? This post is all about getting around.
To be perfectly honest, it was one aspect of our journey that really attracted me, the randomness of a trip like this. Not having every step planned, just going into it head-on. We didn’t really have a set destination. Our plan was to head south to warmer climes so anything in between was undecided. Yet, I had been reading blogs for many years and had picked up a few ideas about how we’d make our way and Al had a few ideas as well.
Navigation was the easy part because there are many tools to help you get to places. Our first go-to was our chart plotter.
Our Raymarine E80 chart plotter was the one tool we used everywhere we went. A Chartplotter, used in marine navigation, integrates GPS data with an electronic navigational chart (ENC). The chartplotter displays the ENC along with the position, heading and speed of the ship. It can also display additional information like radar and automatic information systems (AIS).
To get your chart plotter active, you purchase charts for the area you are exploring and install them. This caused some consternation twice during our trip because we assumed that we had charts for areas, but were proved wrong. When we arrived in the BVIs we discovered that our North American/Bahamas charts did not include the BVIs. Oops! So we had to order a new set – and it took 4 weeks. It also cost $350.00 US and 2 tries but that’s another story we’ll share with you at a later date. The second time we discovered we were chart deficient was when we arrived at Bermuda. We discovered that our assumptions for a region should have been checked before arrival. Both times we resorted to paper charts, which we still carry on board, and use offshore and in times when technology isn’t available. And there’s Navionics.
While we were in Halifax we downloaded Navionics to our iPad and iPhone. Having something handheld, independent of our chart plotter seemed like a good idea. Navionics claims to be the ‘world’s #1 boating app”. Essentially, it does what our chart plotter does but is easily accessible and its always a good idea to have a back-up.
It has an excellent visual interface and we found it easier to use than the plotter. Often, I would take it up on the bow when approaching a harbour, while Al used the chart plotter at the helm. It was convenient at night to have these charts on the phone or iPad.
The couple of times Navionics were necessary, BVIs and Bermuda, made the purchase worth it. We paid $153.00 for it and downloaded it to my iPhone and iPad. As long as you have enough space on your device you can download maps for the world. It also has a nice tracking feature and is great for determining travel time to a destination.
These tools were great for navigating but they didn’t give us the inside scoop or details we needed. Essentially we were looking for travel guides.
While a plotter tells you about your geographic position, depths etc., it doesn’t tell you anything specific such as the best place to anchor or where to get a good breakfast. The next tool I downloaded and one we relied on heavily was Active Captain. Sail Magazine describes ActiveCaptain as a,
“popular community-based sailing website that contains user-generated information about marinas, anchorages, marine hazards and local points of interest for sailing around the world.”
Active Captain was founded in 2007 by Jeff and Karen Siegel. The community claims to have more than 200,000 users. The free app connects to your mobile device and your Garmin chart plotter. We didn’t have Garmin, so I downloaded the app and used it as an info guide along with our chart plotter.
Its easy to use. You do a name search for the area or by pan the map of the area. You can view the area as a nautical chart, a Google-type map, a satellite image, or as a hybrid image. There are colored markers indicating marinas (red), anchorages (blue), hazards (yellow) and local knowledge (green).
When approaching an unknown port we’d do a name search for the area. Active Captain would list all available ports, anchorages and areas that were accessible. The best thing about it was the user reviews. They provided information on all aspects of a region such as depths, navigation tips, best places to anchor in what types of wind conditions, hazards, where to shop, where fishing gear is located, good spots to take your pets ashore and countless other useful tips. It was an essential tool and helped get us from Newfoundland to Virginia, USA. Here’s a screenshot of our approach to Atlantic City. We arrived in the dark and it was a gnarly approach, but having the Active Captain information was useful.
But the best tool of all were the guide books. We had several for the New England coast and picked up many along the way. Boat friendly places like Newport had Portbooks, with maps, list of services and tide information. Areas that were cruiser friendly often provided these type of information books and we started to search them out whenever we went ashore.
When we arrived in the Caribbean we purchased three guide books, all written by Chris Doyle that were indispensable. These books cost about $25-$50, depending on where you buy them. They are thorough and a new version is released every year. We had one for the Virgin Islands, The Windward and the Leewards, which covered us from BVIs all the way to Grenada. They offer so much valuable information – maps, navigation, regulations, communications, general yacht services, suppliers, shopping, restaurants and almost anything you need.
If it wasn’t covered in Doyle’s guide you could probably ask fellow cruisers. In places where there was a lot of cruisers, a cruisers net took place every morning over VHF. It was usually hosted by a local cruiser, and would begin with arrivals and departures, and cover everything from social events to and buy and sell, but it was also a great arena to ask questions. When I was in St. Martin, I found a place to supply new cushions for our boat by asking on the net. People are always willing to share information and help you out. Its one of the nice things about yachties.
In the end we learned that getting around was easy and with a little planning, you could find everything you needed. And if all else failed, Filbert could always smell land. We just had to follow his nose. And he has a very good nose.